ST. PETERSBURG — It's funny how baseball works.
Just a few days ago, we all were applauding those pesky Tampa Bay Rays for showing up anywhere at any time to play anybody in a do-or-die game.
Toronto? No problem. Texas? Sure thing. Cleveland? What time do you want to start?
The Rays brought their bats and gloves and kicked in the playoff door for the fourth time in six years.
But after a couple of days in Boston, the Rays now find themselves in a game that has more than the season on the line.
Not only are the Rays playing this evening to keep their season alive, they are playing for their legacy. History is at stake. How we judge this franchise, how we look at it years from now, very well could be riding on these playoffs, starting with tonight's Game 3.
See, it's one thing to go down valiantly, courageously, to go down kicking and screaming and hitting and running. It's another to go down the way the Rays are going down in this series.
The lasting memories cannot be Wil Myers running away from a fly ball like it was a swarm of killer bees. Or ace David Price doing a better job bellyaching on Twitter than pitching on a pitcher's mound. Or the Rays playing the bug to Boston's windshield.
And if the Rays do lose tonight, or even in Games 4 or 5, how will we look back at this Rays team?
"It's a dramatic success," owner Stu Sternberg said last week. "Even if we had lost (last) Sunday (in Toronto and had missed the postseason), it would have been a dramatic success as well."
You can see why Sternberg would say that.
Considering their small-market payroll, it's remarkable the Rays won 92 games, especially when the starting rotation, the backbone of this team, had one injury after another.
And considering how lousy this franchise was forever, it's stunning it has won at least 90 in five of the past six seasons. Sometimes we do forget, then probably take for granted, how far this organization has come.
When you look at how to build a franchise and how to do things the right way, the Rays are the model. It's hard to find a general manager who has done a better job than Andrew Friedman, and there is no better manager than Joe Maddon.
But, at some point, winning 90 just isn't enough. Just getting to the playoffs cannot be the finish line. At some point, you have to do something in the playoffs, like win the whole shebang.
No one could have predicted when the Rays went to the 2008 World Series that it was the beginning of a phenomenal six-year run. But, if I had told you that the Rays would go on such a run but not win another playoff series (well, except for that one-game wild card against the Indians on Wednesday), would you have been okay with that?
Of course not. And the Rays shouldn't be okay with it, either.
Making the postseason is swell. It means you have given your fans more good nights than bad during the course of the regular season. The Rays have been contenders each of the past six years, something very few teams can say. There are plenty of franchises, including the Yankees and Dodgers — teams rich in history and bank accounts — who would love to have Tampa Bay's recent success.
But the Rays' window can't last forever, and each passing year without a championship makes their accomplishments less significant.
Throughout this run, the Rays have lost pivotal links in the chain — Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, James Shields, Matt Garza. Sooner rather than later, they are going to lose Price.
Eventually, that has to catch up to you. You can't overcome such losses and keep on winning year after year after year.
The Rays will argue how they continually overhaul their roster. Tonight's starting lineup will feature only one player (Evan Longoria) who started Game 5 of the 2008 World Series. The entire starting rotation has been replaced since then.
But no team's window is open forever, particularly when you count every penny like the Rays. That's why being more than a one-and-done playoff team is critical.
Is it fair to judge how good a team is by how it plays in a handful of playoff games? Probably not. But, that's how it works.
You remember the champions, not the ones the champions beat along the way.
In the end, the Rays are a wonderful organization. But if they lose tonight and end another year two rounds shy of a championship, it becomes a little harder to call the season a success.
That's why tonight means more than just keeping 2013 alive.