ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Sam Fuld came across an old issue of Sports Illustrated in the Oakland Coliseum's visiting clubhouse during the recent road trip. It was the baseball preview issue, the one that had the Boston Red Sox pegged for last place in the American League East.
Like a lot of preseason forecasts, Sports Illustrated swung and missed on that one.
The Red Sox open a three-game series tonight at Tropicana Field rolling toward the division title with a 7½-game lead over the Rays while Tampa Bay scrambles to regain its footing in the race for one of the two wild card spots after a 3-7 West Coast trip that Fuld described as weird — and not in a good way.
“Maybe two, three weeks ago the wild card seemed like an assumption at worst,” Fuld said. “We've put ourselves in position now where we need to win as many games as we can to put us in the playoffs.”
Make no mistake, this series remains crucial for the Rays, but not because the division lead can change hands, which was how it was shaping up in late August when the Rays and Sox shared the division lead. It's huge because the Rays need to win games, period.
It was a happy bunch that flew home Sunday night from Seattle after snapping a three-game losing streak with a 4-1 victory against the Mariners.
“It was kind of a buzz saw moment,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said of the 10-day trip. “We kind of survived it in a sense. We get to go back home, and of course, you have to believe.”
Believe because the Rays are 4-11 since Aug. 25. They were tied with the Red Sox for first place before the slide began. Now they cling to the final wild card spot.
“We've just hit a rough patch like every other team in the big leagues has more than one time,” said pitcher David Price, who starts tonight for the Rays. “It just so happens that it's happening right now at an unfortunate time for us. We're going to get through it. In the position that we're in right now, if the season ended today we're in the playoffs. Everybody needs to chill out and play baseball.”
Tonight begins a season-ending stretch of 20 games in 20 days.
It will be a daunting run with 14 of the games against teams contending for a playoff spot —three against Boston, four against Texas, four against Baltimore and three against the Yankees in New York. No other wild card contender plays as many games against other contenders as the Rays.
Tampa Bay also has three games at Minnesota and three at Toronto.
Maddon said his team will approach each game as a one-game season.
“Day-by-day,” he said. “We're going 'Godspell' the rest of the season.”
First up are the Red Sox, a team that didn't garner much hope during spring training but have the best record in baseball.
“My thought going into this season was any of the five teams in the East could win the division, so it's not surprising,” Fuld said. “Now when you look at the lineup it's a scary lineup, and it's not because of anybody they picked up during the year, it's just a good lineup. The guys they expected to do well are doing well.”
Maddon said back in March the Red Sox could be dangerous this season if they could get their pitching in order. He was already impressed with Boston's lineup.
“The thing that they did that was most impressive to me last offseason is the character people that they brought in,” Maddon said. “I know those guys and I know how tough they are and I know what they bring to a clubhouse and that's to augment what they already have, so that was my concern.”
It wasn't that long ago when this series was circled on the schedule as one that could go a long way toward determining the division champion, especially after the Rays took three of four at Fenway Park after the All-Star break to move into first place.
But can the Rays realistically overcome a 7½-game deficit in 20 days to a team that doesn't appear to be slowing down?
“That's a tough hill to climb, but faced with the situation we were in two years ago, we're not leaving out that possibility,” Fuld said.
“But it's a big series being that we're playing a really difficult team. We need as many games as possible.”
And that's become the Rays' immediate focus. They control their destiny, so just worry about winning today.
“If we can get through this and start playing like we were before, a couple of weeks ago when we were one of the best teams in baseball, if we can do that at the right time, that's all that matters,” Price said. “We got to get into the playoffs, and it's whoever catches fire at the right time. If we can do that, good things can happen.”