PHILADELPHIA – The Tampa Bay Rays, they of the hollow lineage and 97-win season and World Series attendance, can start their three-game winning streak and ensuing parade Monday night against Cole Hamels.
Or, and this is looking a lot more likely, not.
It's a long way back lugging your No. 3 and cleanup hitters. It's a long way back when your second baseman has gotten squirrelly with his glove. It's a long way back when Ryan Howard isn't missing anymore, and neither is Jimmy Rollins.
Yeah, it was one thing when the Rays couldn't seem to get Carlos Ruiz out. The alternative is much louder.
Now here they are, 177 games into the most unlikely baseball season in going on four decades, erecting a little miracle of their own, and what they have left is Game 5 at Citizens Bank Park against the same Philadelphia Phillies' left-hander who beat them in Game 1, who beat the Los Angeles Dodgers twice in the National League Championship Series and the Milwaukee Brewers once in the NL Division Series. That would be Cole Hamels, who could become the first pitcher to win five starts in the same postseason.
If this is where the Rays go down, if their season dies four days from Halloween, well, there is uncommon achievement in that by itself. That they got here and stopped hitting and kicked the ball around and then had their fastballs drift toward the middle of the plate, well, they can't quite accept that either.
It's sort of the beauty of the Rays being in the World Series, that they expect to win it, too, and maybe still do. Their standards are no lower than any of the teams they beat to get here, all those teams that never saw them coming.
So they stood at their lockers after Sunday night's 10-2 loss, the one that left them in a three-games-to-one hole. Six teams have played themselves into the same place and won the World Series anyway. There is that.
In a rather good mood all things considered, Carlos Pena nodded at the deficit, accepted a team-wide .187 batting average and acknowledged his own 13 at-bats, which have resulted in no hits and six strikeouts.
"If I were a writer," he said, looking across the crowd pressed close to him, "where else would I rather be than writing the Rays' story?"
The tale, we know now, is of a lot of good drafts, followed by perseverance, followed by blind loyalty to the guy on the top step. It's of assembling a pitching staff that is talented and inexpensive. It's about a trade that hits and a unit that melds and a summer that amazed.
These summers end, however. Some don't end well. They all can't.
"I mean, it is what it is," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "We've had our struggles. Fortunately for us, we've got one more game to get out of it."
Quickly, he added, that "actually" there could be more. Two or three more.
"We've been doing it all year," he said. "We've never given up and been written off plenty of times. All we can do is do our best and see what happens."
This is the same kid who hit six home runs in the division and league championship series, and now he's on the rookie lifeline, having for the moment been figured out by Phillies pitchers. Entrusted with the cleanup spot, he is 0-for-16 with nine strikeouts. He swings at nearly everything now. And the few pitches he doesn't swing at can be trusted to catch the corner and run the count to 0-and-2.
"I just think I'm at one of those stages I'm not locked in," he said after three more strikeouts. "I'm getting one, maybe two pitches per at-bat to hit. When you're locked in you hit those pitches."
When you're not, you pepper the auxiliary press box, which is a long way from home plate, but also 50 feet foul. That's where Longoria hit one Sunday night.
"When you're not feeling that good in the box and you get one pitch to hit, it's tough," he said. "My plan is to keep swinging. You can't go up there and leave the bat on your shoulder and hope you come out of a slump."
In playing to the edge of making this a very cool season but ultimately a disappointing one, or 6½ unforgettable months followed by a week they'd like back, the Rays were in some trouble from the first inning.
With one out and two on, pitcher Andy Sonnanstine cornered Rollins on the third-base line and flipped the ball to Longoria, who tagged Rollins where the Phillies keep their rubber duckies. Umpire Tim Welke declared Rollins safe (making Longoria the only guy on the field having a worse series than Welke's crew) and Rollins eventually scored the Phillies' first run.
But, that is perhaps the only brightness from Sunday, that and the promise for another game. Just that one, and then they'll see from there.
"But," said Joe Maddon, their ever-optimistic manager, "I don't even like to talk about three in a row. The mantra has been one at a time. I want to approach it that way. It's about beating the guy tomorrow and getting back home. It's about tomorrow."
Soon, it will be today. They did a lot of todays pretty well, 177 times over. Maybe they can do it three more times. It's a long way back, but this organization has carried bigger loads for longer periods of time.
First they'll try to make it respectable. Go from there.
"We definitely don't want to leave the series like this," Carl Crawford said.
Not to mention the season.