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Thursday, Sep 21, 2017
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Count Rays out of race at your own risk

NEW YORK - At this point last year they Rays were 3 ½ games back of the Red Sox with 17 games to play and rolling toward that magical final night of the season, remember? How can you forget? Game 162 has been commemorated with a T-shirt and a figurine of third baseman Evan Longoria rounding first base, hands above his head, after hitting the game-winning home run that sent the Rays to the postseason. The highlights are shown on the video screen during every home game. It's the slogan to the ticket plan now offered to generate larger crowds during the 10 remaining home games -- #162STRONG.
For the Rays, it's a reminder that this season is far from over despite what happened last week in Baltimore. "At some point it helps because it's a positive thought," Longoria said. It took, as Rays radio announcer Andy Freed said in that highlight clip, "Miracle upon miracle," for the Rays to make up nine games in the standings during a 23-day period. "Last year was an anomaly," outfielder Sam Fuld said. "Yeah, we played good baseball, but a big part of our getting into the playoffs was Boston's failure." That won't happen this year because the Red Sox are in last place, and because the Rays are chasing more than one team for a playoff spot, be it the division title or one of the two Wild Card spots. Game 162 is a nice, little rallying cry. Manager Joe Maddon alludes to it from time to time when discussing the plight of the Rays. "After what happened in 2011 anything can really happen as long as you don't quit, as long as you don't give up," Maddon said. "The moment you stop believing it can never happen. I promise you it will never happen. As long as you keep believing, anything possibly can. I'm not going to click my heels right now or anything like that. Once you lose heart, once you lose that fight, and you lose that desire to grind it out, you can't." Maddon said he doesn't pay attention to the standings. He might be the only one in the Tampa area who doesn't. "I see the standings," center fielder B.J. Upton said. "It's hard not to because it's on TV every day. We know where we're at. We know Baltimore is in Oakland (this weekend)." Pitcher James Shields said when you have four games off in between starts like he does, you can't help but follow the playoff chase on the scoreboards. "We get bored in the dugout," he said. The Rays know they made it tough on themselves by getting swept in Baltimore, but they also know they have a chance to return the favor during the final three games of the regular season when the Orioles visit the Trop. "In some way we're in a position that we're really comfortable with," Fuld said. "There are some people and maybe even other teams that are writing us off already, and that's what happened last year. I think we thrived under those circumstances. We never want to be down and forgotten about, but we do seem to play when we're in those situations." Thursday's 14-inning loss in Baltimore was as tough a loss as the Rays have had this season, and yet they bounced back nicely against the Yankees on Friday night. Of course it helps to have David Price in the mound. And some offense. "We don't get down. We don't throw in the towel by any means. We keep playing," Fuld said. "That's the only way we got into the playoffs last year, we kept playing and didn't look too far ahead. I've said it a lot and it's a cliché, but we really take it day-by-day." That was the formula last September. "Then it just crept up on us," Longoria said. Game 162 has taught the organization that as, Maddon said, as long as they have not been eliminated anything is possible. Yet, they also know they can't lean on another Game 162 to save another season. Yes, they have the safety net of those final three games against the Orioles, but the Rays need to make up some ground before then or those games could be meaningless. "If we don't take care of our business we're going to sit and watch October baseball at home," Shields said. Said Upton, "We're concerned about it, but we're not going to play tight. We're going to win some games. There's still some time left." Beginning today, there are 17 games left. "It won't be easy," Fuld said, "but that's the way we like it. When you win when you're supposed to win it's a relief. Here it's pure joy."
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