ST. PETERSBURG — They've said all the right things, used the correct cliches, talked about their recent history in elimination games and, to a man, vowed tonight will be different when they meet the Boston Red Sox in the biggest must-win game of the season.
But how do the Tampa Bay Rays win Game 3 and avoid being swept in this best-of-five American League Division Series against the Red Sox?
“Well,” Evan Longoria said, “the simplest answer is win.”
And how do they do that against a team that's put up 19 runs and never appeared threatened while winning the first two games in Boston?
“We need to get off to a good start, get on top, stay on top, that kind of stuff,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “That's what we need to do.”
The Rays got off to the good start in Game 1, scoring twice on solo home runs by Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist for a 2-0 lead and then, well, you might say they dropped the ball.
Mental errors in Friday's game, physical errors in Saturday's loss, poor situational hitting, not to mention seven earned runs allowed by both Matt Moore and David Price and here they are, backs against a wall for the fourth time in their past six games.
The Rays, obviously, are 3-0 in the first three win-or-go-home games.
“I think every team, when you sort of actually feel the end of the road so to speak, there's a strong sense of want and urgency,” Longoria said. “So maybe it's good, maybe it isn't. I hope that we're able to respond (tonight). I'm definitely not done playing baseball this year.”
It's easy to point to what the Rays didn't do during the first two games in Boston. They scored six runs, hit .194 as a team and were 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position.
Maddon said Sunday maybe it's time to look at what the Red Sox have done — .352 team average and 11-for-28 with runners in scoring position.
“Listen,” Maddon said, “a big part of the problem is the Red Sox, obviously. They're playing at a really high level. ... They're good. They're real good right now. They were good all season, and not only that, they have a lot of battled-tested fellows on that team. That presents more of a concern or a problem.”
Pitching for the Rays tonight is Alex Cobb, who managed to throw 6™ shutout innings without his best stuff in the wild-card win against the Indians in Cleveland to advance his team to the ALDS.
“You couldn't ask for a better guy than Cobb on the mound,” Longoria said. “He's been really, really good for us. He gives everybody confidence. He gives us life.”
Pitching for Boston is Clay Buchholz, who has allowed five hits and pitched 13 scoreless innings in two starts this season against the Rays.
“Every pitcher makes a few mistakes in a game, and I think those are the ones you hope to capitalize on, especially against a guy like him,” Longoria said.
The Rays have been outpitched and outplayed during the first two games. After enduring a trio of elimination games played in three cities in four days, it's easy to wonder if they suffered a letdown once they reached Boston, if knowing there would be a tomorrow regardless of the outcome took a little edge off their game.
“It would be easy, but I wouldn't want to use that as an excuse,” Maddon said. “I thought it was actually going to catapult us.”
Longoria said that wasn't the case.
“I wouldn't say we relaxed,” Longoria said. “Speaking from my own personal thoughts, it's tough to not feel urgent in that place. It's tough to not feel like every pitch and every run and every situation is the biggest situation of the year. Those fans make it tough not to feel that way.
“I don't feel we let our guard down at all. We made some mistakes. That definitely hurt us. I felt they swung the bats better, they pitched better. At some point you have to be able to admit that, turn the page and go to the next day.”
While the Rays crisscrossed the country on a victory tour of sorts, the Red Sox sat at home and waited for the winner of the wild-card game to reach Fenway Park. They were the team that entered the series cold, yet they need one more win to advance.
“Boston's just a good team,” Kelly Johnson said. “They had the layoff. You could've expected to see some rust. You could've expected a lot of things. But they've been a team that really has kind of just plugged along and played really well.”
The Rays return to the Trop tonight after spending 12 days on the road in five cities. The place will be packed. The Rays won 51 games at home this season. Cobb is pitching. They have won three straight elimination games.
“I like our chances here,” Longoria said. “We've played really well down the stretch. I know that our home fans will be out in full force (tonight), and I think our record speaks for itself when we've had a full house. We've played pretty well. The combination of having Cobb and Helly going the next two days and us being at home, I really like.”