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Boston Red Sox collapse is the story, but Tampa Bay Rays' role shouldn't be forgotten

B.J. Upton opens the scoring with a one-out solo homer to leftfield in the first inning off Blue Jays starter Brett Cecil.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

B.J. Upton opens the scoring with a one-out solo homer to leftfield in the first inning off Blue Jays starter Brett Cecil.

ST. PETERSBURG — For now, the Rays are bit players. Extras in someone else's tragedy.

The real drama is in New England. The true tension can be found among the baseball fans holed up in the brownstones that line the streets of the Back Bay.

Yes, the playoff spot is still Boston's to lose.

And Tampa Bay's to snatch.

While the rest of the baseball universe stares incredulously at the self-inflicted drama of the Red Sox, the Rays are going about their business with a bemused air.

They win, they lose, they eat. And they would have you believe they are not obsessing. DH Johnny Damon said he had no plans to watch the Red Sox-Yankees game Sunday night because he was more interested in following his fantasy football team. Manager Joe Maddon said he might take a peek, but he was planning to turn the channel to HBO as soon as Boardwalk Empire came on.

Yes, the Rays are destined to be supporting characters in this drama. History typically doesn't linger on a team that has played .500 baseball for two weeks.

Win or lose, Red Sox players are the ones people will talk about in years to come. Which is how it should be for a team that has gone 6-18 at crunch time.

As collapses go, Boston's would be historic. It would be epic. It would challenge a century's worth of contenders for the mantle of baseball's greatest gag job.

And that causes no consternation for a manager who lives daily with a cheaper payroll, a younger roster, a smaller fan base and a lower profile.

"There is no sympathy. I've been through it. I've lived it. It's part of this game," Maddon said. "And sometimes it s----."

Do not misunderstand. The Rays have played their part in this daily saga. They survived a slow start to the season, they endured a slump in July, and they busted their humps to be in position to take advantage of Boston's misfortune in the fall.

It is just the nature of this game that if the Red Sox fall, they will be remembered more for their failure than the Rays will for their ascension.

How grand is Boston's demise? Look at it this way:

The Rays were as good as any team in the American League in August. They went 18-10 in what they assumed was the start of their playoff charge. And they gained one game on the Red Sox during the entire month.

Tampa Bay inevitably cooled off in September. Even with victories the past two days, the Rays' record for the month is 14-10. And yet they've gained eight games in the standings.

"We were winning every friggin' night," outfielder Sam Fuld said, "and would look up and see Boston and New York winning.

"We say it all the time, it's a weird game."

A little more than two weeks ago, I warned you not to get your hopes too high. That history suggested such a large deficit could not be overcome so quickly.

Turns out, I was wrong.

Spectacularly, brazenly, blissfully wrong.

Even if the Rays do not finish off this comeback, just the idea that they will go into the final three games with a chance to win is remarkable.

"You're more surprised about how they've played," said second baseman Ben Zobrist. "We knew we could play like this but it was a little surprising to see that the Red Sox have played as bad as they have."

Maybe Boston righted itself Sunday night. Maybe the dramatic extra-inning victory against the Yankees is exactly what the Red Sox needed.

After all, they still have a one-game lead on the Rays. And they can clinch a wild-card tie simply by winning two of three against the last-place Orioles.

But can they actually ignore all of the craziness of the past three weeks?

Fuld grew up a Red Sox fan in New Hampshire, and says the weight of so many disappointments hung on the shoulders of New Englanders forever.

It wasn't until the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series that a lot of fans would even permit themselves to imagine a season ending in joy.

"I hate to say anything that might jinx it, but what's going on almost reminds me of the pre-'04 Red Sox mentality," Fuld said. "I just know as a kid, no matter how well they were doing going into August and September, you just knew they were going to blow it.

"I'm sure a lot of people up there are having flashbacks to that mentality."

As for the Rays, they need only finish the job in the next few days.

They need only stand close enough to let the Red Sox know they're still there.

Boston Red Sox collapse is the story, but Tampa Bay Rays' role shouldn't be forgotten 09/26/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 26, 2011 1:41am]

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