SEATTLE — Ahead in the distance is the glow of the tail lights belonging to the first-place Red Sox. The Rays can still see them, though they become dimmer by the day.
In the rear-view mirror are the headlights of the Orioles, Indians and Yankees. The order seems to change daily, but those three are not going away. In fact, they appear to creep closer by the day.
The Rays are stumbling through this West Coast trip, yet they still hold the final wild-card spot in the American League, and that’s a comforting thought.
Despite all the runners left in scoring position, empty at-bats with the bases loaded, hanging change-ups to No. 9 hitters and one incredible lapse in judgment that allows someone to get picked off second base with no outs in the eighth inning in a game they trailed at the time by a run, the Rays still control their destiny.
Which means this: take care of business and they will play baseball in October.
Toward that end, Rays manager Joe Maddon mentioned something Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby once said that sums up the plight of the Rays and any other team trying to hang on to a postseason spot: “Win tonight’s game, and if you can stay focused on that you can do pretty well.”
Which isn’t to say the Rays are merely trying to survive September. They still play with the goal of catching the Red Sox and winning the division.
“Why would we not?” asked David Price.
Heading to the postseason as a division champion is a heck of a lot better than heading to a one-game wild-card round.
All the work and success of the 162-game regular season can disappear with one swing from a No. 8 hitter or a bad bounce to third base or an umpire’s call.
You can argue the merits of a one-game playoff to gain entry to the division series all day, but that is what awaits the two wild-card teams. Hate it or really hate it, both teams were aware of the format when pitchers and catcher first arrived for spring training in mid-February.
“You’re feelings about it are going to change constantly,” Maddon said. “Of course you want to win the division, that’s still our goal, win the division. But after that, if you’re kicking butt and you’re the first wild-card team, you hate the thought.”
And if you are the Rays, who manage to stay afloat in the wild-card standings despite everything that is going wrong?
“You think it’s the greatest thing in the world,” Maddon said.
Catch the Red Sox, that’s still the goal.
Boston comes to town for a three-game series beginning Tuesday. It was supposed to be the series that changed everything as far as the division title was concerned.
That Rays can’t catch the Red Sox this week. The best they can hope for is to put a dent in Boston’s lead.
But this isn’t 2011. This Red Sox team isn’t going to collapse, and this Rays team isn’t going to chase them down unless something really unexpected happens during the last three weeks of the season.
This is the time of year when the out-of-town scoreboard and the standings mean everything. This is also the time of year when fixating on those two can prove fatal.
“You’re not ignorant of what’s happening around you,” Ben Zobrist said.
“The TV is on. We see what other teams are doing. When a team loses that you want to lose, you want to take advantage of it, but it shouldn’t be any different if they win. Even though we know our opponent is in our division, we’re not playing them tonight but we are playing them tonight. We are playing them because we have to win against the (Mariners) to have any chance later on.”
So the Rays still take aim at the Red Sox, knowing if they fall short that they have the wild card as a backup plan for October baseball.
“It’s a tough position to be in,” Maddon said. “But it’s better than not being in it at all.”
And if that’s what it comes down to for the Rays, they won’t think the one-game playoff is so bad.
“No, absolutely not. We got a chance,” Price said. “The people who come in third in the wild card don’t have a chance.”