BALTIMORE – At the end of more than five hours of baseball that ended poorly for him, aware that neither calendar nor standings nor schedule will be especially friendly anymore, Joe Maddon gestured toward two glass jars wrapped in aluminum foil.
"Peppers?" he offered.
The Tampa Bay Rays had just gone down in a puff of turf and an umpire's outstretched arms near the left-field line early Thursday evening at Camden Yards. They'd gone 14 innings against the Baltimore Orioles, sovereigns of the one-run and extra-inning games, and wrenchingly lost ground in the AL East and the wild-card race on some sorry flared single trapped – but not caught – by their left fielder. They'd come to Baltimore on Tuesday and would fly to New York on Thursday having picked up the worst possible result – a sweep and, in the final game alone, having spent nine pitchers.
They don't score enough runs, they've lost five of seven games, the Orioles hardly ever lose, the Yankees are beasts at home and CC Sabathia is directly ahead.
And Maddon really would like someone to try the peppers.
"They're from a cop back home," he said. "I can't eat 'em. They're too hot."
The Orioles left here for a nine-game trip through Oakland, Seattle and Boston. In their wake, their 27th one-run win (against seven defeats) and their 11th consecutive extra-inning win. They boarded their flight alone in first, pending the outcome of the Yankees' game in Boston. They'd won three in a row, eight of 11, 17 of 24.
Along with the Oakland A's, they are the story of the 2012 season, piling unexpected wins atop outlandish wins atop get-the-hell-out-of-here wins. And still those who really believe – as of Thursday afternoon – could hardly pack the ballpark. Buck Showalter got to the ballpark early Thursday morning, still chuckling at this thing he'd heard on the radio on the drive over.
"Don't be so humble," he repeated, "you're not that great."
[Y! Sports Radio: Kevin Kaduk on Astros' embarrassing embrace of Roger Clemens]
He laughed again and mused, "Great quote."
By nightfall, it could be said the only thing hotter in the game was hermetically sealed and stored on a table in the visitor's clubhouse. Those, too, might make Maddon's eyes water, were Maddon the kind of man apt to flay himself over even a moment in a game – or series – that was so taut, competitive and, then, harmful.
"We've been in difficult moments in the past," he said. "There's time left. They've got a tough trip coming up."
[Jeff Passan: Angels close to squandering Mike Trout's dream season]
The Rays and Orioles conclude the season with three games in St. Petersburg. That's what's still out there, to make those count for something.
"This can be re-had, in a sense," Maddon said and shrugged. "If the wind's not blowing in your direction, all of a sudden it can."
He'd hoped, of course, that Thursday would be the day, what after Wednesday night's loss in the ninth inning, the loss that seemed to bleed into this one, ending again with the Orioles piled up on the infield and the crowd shouting, "Man-EE! Man-EE!"
Maddon had returned to his hotel room early Thursday morning, called his wife, bade her good night, put on his music and pondered the next game, No. 143.
He hoped to play Desmond Jennings in left field for the first time since Jennings' back went out. He had to work around Evan Longoria at designated-hitter, with Longoria still dragging around a bad hamstring and only 14 hours between the last pitch Wednesday night and the first Thursday afternoon. And first base. Who would play first?
He wondered why the kid – Manny Machado – hadn't thrown to first base in the ninth inning hours before. He had to know Longoria was running, right? Had to have seen Longoria protecting that leg. Instead, the kid had sold the throw and a half-inning later the Orioles were carrying each other off the field.
Funny game like that. The season trundles along for months and then suddenly there's this crazed, desperate rush to the end, and your pinch-runner gets stranded off third and in a moment everything goes from upright to sideways. And then there's another game, like right now, and the wind still isn't completely at your back.
These are the times the Rays – and Maddon – seemingly have been at their best. They are the composed ones. The undaunted underdogs. When the Red Sox went all haywire last September, it was the Rays who watched them crash and took their spot. When the Yankees got lost or distracted or something, twice it was the Rays who took the AL East.
This isn't to say the Rays must rely on other folks' kindness or frailties. They're plenty skilled, three times in the past four seasons have won at least 91 games, and with an out-of-their-minds streak could again this one. It is to say the Rays prey on other folks' kindness and frailties. Among other things, it's usually where they get their closers and designated hitters.
For this moment, however, the Rays are the forgiving. They are the frail. Base hits are scarce. Base runners die in scoring position. Maddon had worked it through as he drifted to sleep, how the lineup would look and why it would work. Or should, anyway. The Rays cling to the memory of last season, when they rode back from nine games behind on Sept. 3 to a postseason birth on the season's final pitch. Yet, in the aftermath of Wednesday night's skull-crusher, more than one of his players called the series finale "a must-win."
"Regardless of how dire it might seem," Maddon said, "you keep playing. For me, it's just about today. You want to win this game. Must? They're all 'must.' "
The Rays were 20-25 in one-run games. They were 5-6 in extra-inning games. They towed that Thursday into the 10th inning and beyond, to the 13th, when the Orioles loaded the bases with none out against a rookie pitcher – Chris Archer – and the end seemed near.
Archer got out of it, however, even after going 3-and-0 to Orioles stud Matt Wieters with one out, even while pitching pressed up against five infielders and a crowd that sensed victory.
Archer said Carlos Pena, the first baseman, guided him through it.
"He talked about finding stillness in a storm," he said. "Or stillness in a pond."
Either way. Storm, probably.
He said he looked over at Pena, who pressed his flattened palms toward the grass.
"Find your stillness," Archer translated.
He struck out Wieters and then Nate McLouth, only to lose the game an inning later, when, with two out, three consecutive Orioles reached base. The last, Machado, bit through a good pitch and looped the ball toward the left-field line, but shallow. Matt Joyce, playing shallow and toward the line, made a dive for it. Archer instinctively hustled to back up home.
"I thought he actually caught it," Archer said.
Joyce shook his head.
"I know it hit my glove on the bottom," he said. "It was hard to tell what exactly happened."
He looked in his glove. Maddon looked to the umpire.
"I didn't have it," Joyce said.
No, the Orioles had won again. They'd found another way. And Maddon couldn't find any fault in that, nor any real regret.
You know, they're just that hot.
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