ST. PETERSBURG — Are the Rays really in the race for the second American League wild-card spot? Sitting 7½ games behind the A's with only 19 games to play certainly makes it a matter of perspective — and perhaps considerable faith.
But have they been playing like they are in a playoff race?
Especially in Monday's thrilling 6-5 walkoff win over the AL Central-leading Indians, on Ji-Man Choi's two-run, two-out homer in the ninth.
"An exciting win, to say the least,'' manager Kevin Cash said.
The Rays had showed it in winning seven of their previous eight games, 16 of the last 19, 29 of 46 since the All-Star break (fourth best in the majors) and 74 of 125 (sixth best) since that horrid 4-13 start that seemed to doom their season.
They sure looked that way at the start Monday, taking it to Indians ace Corey Kluber, who was aiming for his majors-most and Cy Young vote attracting 19th win, and instead got knocked out in the second.
But then they didn't.
At a time of the season when every game is a must win, the Rays couldn't hold the 4-1 lead they built. They didn't make a play on a blooper that led to a run. They let ex-mate Brandon Guyer, known for his prowess against lefties, hit a two-run double off lefty Adam Kolarek to tie it. And they fell behind in an odd seventh, when Chaz Roe gave up a run without a hit, as he plunked Jose Ramirez then watched him steal his way to third and score on a ground ball that rookie second baseman Brandon Lowe couldn't make the play on in time.
But then in the ninth, they once again did.
Facing new Indians closer Brad Hand, they made two quick outs before Tommy Pham gave them a chance with a single through the right side.
And then Choi, the international man of mystery, gave them reason to celebrate and, of course, dance, launching an 0-and-1 pitch over the rightfield fence.
"It was my first walk-off home run and that was awesome," Choi said, through an interpreter. "I was just thinking at the plate, 'Just come to me, so I can bring the win for the team,' and it happened. I just felt great."
The win improved the Rays to 79-64, and moved them to within 7½ games of the idle A's, who open a three-game series against the woeful Orioles tonight before coming to the Trop for a weekend series that the Rays hope matters. It was their ninth walkoff win, most in the AL. And it was their team record 12th straight at home.
Until Choi stepped up, it looked as if they would waste their splendid effort against Kluber. It was an impressive inning as they hit for a team cycle, including Jake Bauers' first homer since Aug. 1, in Kluber's 44-pitch mess, and doing so without two key starters, as Kevin Kiermaier was sick and Matt Duffy idled by a sore back. It was only the second time in five years Kluber was knocked out that early.
"We get out to the start. You just don't see that kind of inning against Corey Kluber,'' Cash said. "We had some good at-bats, patient at-bats and got some big hits, Jake Bauers' big home run to give us the lead."
But then they made the kind of mistakes that typically are costly, especially for a team in a race.
They gave up a run in the fifth when Jalen Beeks allowed a single and a double, and then centerfielder Mallex Smith, playing in place of Kiermaier, couldn't get to a blooper by Jose Ramirez that dropped in for an RBI double.
They gave up the lead in the sixth, giving up two more runs as Kolarek allowed a pair of singles to put two on with one out. And then former Rays outfielder Guyer took advantage of facing Kolarek and laced a double to deep center.
And then they gave up the go-ahead run in the seventh. Chaz Roe, the fifth Rays pitcher, hit Ramirez and couldn't do much as he stole his way 31st and 32nd bases to get to third with out. Roe then got the ground ball he wanted from Yonder Alonso, but Lowe had trouble getting to his feet after making a diving stop and his throw to the plate was late.
"I can't say enough about the guys after that, to keep the score within one, within reach. That was huge,'' Cash said.
It's a product, Bauers said, of believing they are never out of a game.
"That's the kind of attitude you have to have in this league," he said. "I think that if you go into something thinking that you aren't going to be able to do it, you aren't. That's something I figured out over the past month. I think that good teams know that it doesn't matter what the score is, doesn't
matter who is on the mound, doesn't matter who is at the plate, we can
get this job done,, so why not. Sometimes it's going to happen. Sometimes
it's not, but if you believe, at least you'll give yourself that chance."
What Cash has liked is the way the Rays, especially the young ones going through the major-league experience for the first time, haven't led the situation — real or imagined — impact them.
He meant by not doing anything extraordinary. This night they did, and that was okay, too.
"That last inning, Tommy extending the game a little bit there, going the other way, not trying to do too much. And Ji-Man coming up with just a huge hit," Cash said. "It was a good win.''
After the three games with the Indians, who had come to the Trop with the chance, if everything lined up right, to clinch their division title, the Rays get to take on the A's team they have been chasing, and has refused to help out by losing much.
Obviously, those games will mean something, though how much will be relative.
Expect the Rays to play like they mean everything.
Just like they have been.