TORONTO - It's easy to look at this 10-game stretch out of the All-Star break and see a make-or-break spin through the American League East for the Rays. Take care of business in Toronto, Boston and New York, and the Rays set themselves up for October baseball. Stumble, and they can take themselves out of playoff contention. "I don't know if that would be accurate," third baseman Evan Longoria said. He's right.
The Rays could take over first place with a good trip, depending, of course, on what they do during the four games in Boston and what the Red Sox do during the other six games during this stretch. At the very least, it could increase the Rays' lead in the wild-card standings. "Obviously, if we have a really good road trip after the break and we continue on that same path that we were on before, playing really good baseball and winning ballgames, then you like your chances going forward and you like your odds of making the playoffs," Longoria said. "But I think there's a little bit too much time (left in the season) to say that these 10 games are the make-or-break point of the season." Sure, because the only thing the Rays will lose with a poor trip is the opportunity to gain ground on the Red Sox and strengthen their hold on the wild-card lead. "It doesn't squash anything," manager Joe Maddon said. There will be 56 games left on the schedule when the Rays return to Tropicana Field on July 30. Plenty of time to bounce back from a poor trip, and too much time to assume anything is settled. "I don't know if 10 - unless you lose all 10, then you don't put yourself in a good spot - I don't know if this will be indicative of the rest of the year," Longoria said. It wasn't in 2011, when the Rays sandwiched 10 games against the Yankees and Red Sox around the All-Star break. They were in third place, four games back of the first-place Yankees before heading into Yankee Stadium for the first game of that run. The Rays lost two of three in New York heading into the All-Star break. They lost two of three to the visiting Red Sox on the other side, including a 16-inning, 1-0 backbreaker of a loss, then split four games with the Yankees. The Rays left for a West Coast trip still in third place but 7˝ games out of first place. It was time to cut bait, remember? Trade James Shields and B.J. Upton and focus on 2012. Yet, that season was far from over, thanks to a September run that coincided with a monumental Red Sox collapse. This isn't to say this trip is not important. Given how one game decided the 2011 wild-card race, every game, every trip, is important. What is important is that a team playing in the American League East needs to stockpile as many wins as possible. And playing four games against the team you're chasing in the standings is always a good thing. The Rays play the most road games in the major leagues after the All-Star break. That's kind of important for a team that entered Saturday's game with a .500 road record. Also, the September schedule is tougher than Boston's in that the Rays have only one off day in the final month of the season, while the Red Sox have a pitching-staff-friendly four. And the Rays end the season with a six-game trip through New York and Toronto. But that's looking too far ahead. Maddon gathered the troops before Thursday's charter flight to Toronto to deliver that message. "It really, absolutely is about one day at a time," Maddon said. "I encourage them the day after a game, whether good or bad, throw it into the garbage can and move on to that (day's) game. Don't worry about tomorrow. That will take care of itself. Let's just take care of today." While some see this trip as an important 10-game stretch, Maddon sees it as 10 games and nothing more. "Don't look at it in a block of 10," he said. "Look at it in a block of one, and if we do that, we have a much better chance of being good." One block at a time? "I can't permit myself to look at it in that big of a block, and I don't want our guys to, either," Maddon said. "The block is one. We're playing good baseball, so let's just deal with that." firstname.lastname@example.org (813) 259-7227 Twitter: @RMooneyTBO