Despite scuffling for the past 2 1/2 weeks, the Tampa Bay Rays have been in control of their postseason destiny.
That may no longer be the case with another loss.
On the verge of losing control of their playoff fate for the first time in two months, the Rays try to salvage Thursday night's series finale with the Boston Red Sox.
Tampa Bay (78-66) was tied for the AL East lead Aug. 24, but has since gone 4-13 to plunge 9 1/2 games behind the first-place Red Sox (89-58), who have essentially wrapped up the division with 15 games remaining.
The Rays' struggles have also allowed the New York Yankees to pull within one game for the second wild card, while Baltimore and Cleveland are each 1 1/2 games back. Tampa Bay has been in control of at least one playoff spot since July 7.
"First of all, we're still in a wild-card situation," manager Joe Maddon told the Rays' official website after Wednesday's 7-3, 10-inning loss. "Everybody's been preaching doom and gloom, and from my perspective, it's been a very tough run right now. However, as we right ourselves, we're in pretty good position to continue on into the playoffs.
"I don't want our guys to go out there and worry about sharp objects. Just go out there and continue to play and get ourselves right."
Tampa Bay's offense has been brutal during its slump, batting .226 and plating a major league-worst 44 runs since Aug. 25. Cleanup hitter Evan Longoria is 2 for 17 with one RBI with runners in scoring position in his last 14 games.
The offense could again have problems going up against scheduled starter Jake Peavy (11-5, 4.01 ERA), though the right-hander wasn't as sharp his last time out.
Peavy gave up four runs and six hits in six-plus innings in last Thursday's 9-8, 10-inning win over the New York Yankees. He walked three after issuing three walks over his previous four starts combined while going 2-1 with a 1.95 ERA.
Peavy faced the Rays on April 26, and permitted three runs in 6 2-3 innings of a 5-4 win for the Chicago White Sox. He is 3-1 despite a 4.99 ERA in five career starts versus Tampa Bay.
Longoria is 2 for 12 with a homer lifetime against Peavy.
The Rays turn to Jeremy Hellickson (11-8, 5.04), who will make his second start since being recalled from the minors.
Hellickson, who never actually reported to a minor league team, was demoted in an effort to help him regroup and get some additional rest before the stretch run. The tactic appeared to work, as the right-hander tossed 5 1-3 scoreless innings of four-hit ball in last Wednesday's 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels for his first victory since July 26. He was 0-5 with a 9.00 ERA before being sent down.
"I did feel rested," Hellickson said. "I think my fastball had a little more life to it. Curveball might have been a little sharper."
Hellickson was solid in his two starts this season against the Red Sox, going 1-0 with a 2.77 ERA.
Boston, however, has been on a tear lately, batting .322 with 66 runs and 49 extra-base hits in its last seven games.
Mike Carp lifted the Red Sox to their 14th victory in 17 games with a pinch-hit grand slam in the 10th inning Wednesday.
Mike Napoli hit a two-run double and is batting .452 with four homers, five doubles and 12 RBIs in his last 10 games. He is 2 for 11, however, lifetime against Hellickson.
Dustin Pedroia, who has gone 3 for 8 with a walk in two games since assuming the role of leadoff batter with Jacoby Ellsbury sidelined, is hitting .179 (5 for 28) lifetime versus Hellickson.
The Red Sox haven't swept a series in Tampa Bay since May 2010.