September 18, 2011
There are any number of reasons why the Tampa Bay Rays are still up against it in the race for the AL wild card. We'll get to a few of them in a second.
This, however, is all you need to know at the current moment: Faced with a four-game series at Fenway Park, the Rays were able to slice two entire games off the only number that matters — Boston's rapidly dwindling lead over their AL East counterparts.
Say all you want about the rest of the statistics and odds that say the Rays are still a longshot, but at this time of year, the only thing that matters is either the ground you make up or defend. Tampa Bay is currently doing plenty of the former, while the Red Sox are struggling with the latter. The Rays' 8-5 win on Sunday afternoon gave Joe Maddon's crew its third win in the four-game series. On the other side, the Red Sox have lost 11 of 14 games to send Boston into a panic.
Were it not for Josh Beckett(notes) and a strong effort from the bullpen on Friday night — the only two-game swing the Red Sox were able to salvage all weekend — the two teams would be tied heading into the regular season's final 10 games.
"To be able to do this against this team here, if that can't bolster your confidence nothing really can," Rays manager Joe Maddon told reporters. "Now [the wild card] becomes more viable. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and now it's not attached to an oncoming train."
Maddon and his team have a right to be confident and pleased with their position. With all the chips on the table, they beat the Red Sox and stayed in the race. You can't look at their still considerable odds — coolstandings.com pegs their playoff chances at 8.6 percent — and then pooh-pooh their effort as a result. The long odds are the long odds until they aren't any more and it takes things like winning three of four in Boston to make up that much ground. If they split the series, we're not even discussing their chances.
Of course, at the same time, it'd be foolish not to acknowledge the Rays' situation and act like the Red Sox have already waved the white flag on the year. It'd be foolish not to realize that only 10 games are left in the season, a short enough time to lend even the biggest of stumblers a certain amount of grace.
For the Rays to make this past weekend one to remember, they're going to have to continue playing well in seven games against the New York Yankees and three against the Toronto Blue Jays. The Red Sox, meanwhile, play the Yankees three times with a sandwich of seven games against the team on the other side of AL East, the Baltimore Orioles.
Trying to figure out what will happen from either side at this point is impossible — maybe it'll be the Yanks who play spoiler, maybe it'll be the O's, maybe it'll be neither — so it's best off to sit back and enjoy these last 10 days of the season. The Rays may or may not complete the comeback, but they're doing what they need to do right now.
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