Despite a valiant charge, it will require a miracle even greater than last year's magical ending for the Tampa Bay Rays to qualify for the 2012 playoffs. By capturing 11 of 12 games, including 5 of 6 on the recently-concluded road trip, the club has sizzled hotly at the ideal time. With stellar pitching and much improved hitting, the Rays have defied the odds to sit only 2 wins removed from the team's 4th 90 win season in the past 5 years.
Yet, these accolades will prove hollow if Tampa Bay is eliminated from the playoff contention. Though the Rays have done their part during the late surge, rivals have not cooperated. With the Baltimore Orioles riding high on a 4 game winning streak, the Oakland Athletics triumphed in all 3 weekend contests in Seattle. Even the Los Angeles Angels, who are tied with the Rays at 88-71, have captured 7 of 10 games.
As a result, Tampa Bay is a distant 3 games from the A.L. wildcard with only 3 dates left on the schedule. Despite a perfectly-timed meeting at Tropicana Field for the final series of the year, the Rays can no longer catch Baltimore, who enjoy a 4 game advantage. This means fans must place hopes in an unlikely scenario.
For Tampa Bay to finish tied for the 2nd wildcard spot, the club must sweep its final 3 contests with the O's, while Oakland must get swept in their concluding series against the Texas Rangers.
Is their legitimate reason for optimism? Probably not. But baseball fans will cling to hope until mathematics dictate it impossible. And those in Tampa Bay are very familiar with unlikely happenings in Game 162. Here's how the Rays can do it.
Tampa Bay is playing its best ball of 2012. While starting pitching and the bullpen fire on all cylinders, the team's lackluster offense has finally picked up the slack. Evan Longoria is healthy and producing like a 3 time All-Star. B.J. Upton remains on fire and seems intent on adding value to his forthcoming free agent contract with each home run. Meanwhile Ben Zobrist continues steadily to post solid numbers and stake his claim to being the Rays' offensive MVP in 2012.
Sending Alex Cobb, James Shields, and Jeremy Hellickson to the Tropicana Field mound, the Rays appear to enjoy a pitching advantage in each contest. Though a miracle finish would require winning 14 of 15 games to conclude the season, fans must hope the team can sweep Baltimore, who has already triumphed in 9 of 15 mutual games in 2012. Providing moral support, the New York Yankees will be cheering loudly, since the Orioles and Yanks are deadlocked at 92-67 for the East Division lead.
Since the Rays no longer control their own fate, fans must also heartily embrace the Texas Rangers. Yes, that means rooting for the club that eliminated Tampa Bay from the past 2 post-seasons. But Texas still has work remaining in the 3 game road series at Oakland. Only maintaining a 2 game edge on the A's, the Rangers have failed to wrap up the West Division. Furthermore, the best record in the American League is still undetermined. Texas holds a 1 game advantage on both New York and Baltimore, but that could change quickly if they fail to take care of business in Oakland.
It is disappointing to realize that failing to capture just 1 game in the past 2 weeks ultimately prevented the Rays from controlling their destiny. When the team fell 3-1 to the Chicago White Sox on Friday, September 29, the Orioles took full advantage with a 9-1 rout of the lowly Boston Red Sox. This single mishap enabled the lead to swell to 4 games and prevented the final home stand from carrying even more weight.
Nevertheless, the Rays must take the field with firm intentions of winning, while hoping for the best 3,000 miles away in California. It is not time to lose hope yet. Fans can expect nothing less from a team capably managed by Joe Maddon.
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