ST. PETERSBURG — They are solid enough to claim first place for a day. And they are shaky enough to reclaim second the next.
They are good enough to come from behind against the storied New York Yankees. After that, they can still manage to fall from ahead.
They can bring you to your feet when they win, and they can stop your palms in mid-clap when they do not.
This is how the season has gone for the Tampa Bay Rays, and this is how the rest of it will go. The Rays will be back in first place again, and they will be back in second. For the next 18 days, they will struggle against the Yankees, and the Yankees will struggle against them. At this point, it is difficult to imagine the American League East race ending any other way.
The Rays and Yankees played another one of those extra-inning, pump-up-the-blood-pressure games Tuesday night. This time, the Yankees won the game, 8-7, and took the first-place designation that goes along with it. A day earlier, the Rays had won a 1-0 game.
"You get the feeling it's going to be like this," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "We're both playing good baseball. It's going to go back and forth. Hopefully, we'll end up on top."
Tuesday night's game was one of the strangest losses of the Rays' season. Early in the game, the Yankees played as if they were trying to re-enact scenes from The Empire Strikes Back. Derek Jeter hit a double and Alex Rodriguez hit a homer and Robinson Cano hit a home run. For a while, it was as if the Yankees were trying to pummel the Rays with their wallets.
Then the Rays came back with seven runs in the fifth. It was the only inning they hit in, then starting pitcher Matt Garza was lousy again, and Carl Crawford was thrown out at third to end the game. So, yeah, there were reasons for Rays fans to be concerned.
On the other hand, there was Willy Aybar.
It was Aybar the forgotten who brought the Rays back into the lead in the fifth inning with his three-run homer, the second straight night an obscure player made the big play for the Rays. The night before, Reid Brignac's 11th-inning home run won the game.
For the Rays, this is important, because this is the only way they are going to beat Fort Knox. They're going to have to have little players have big moments to hold off a team of multi-millionaires with future Hall of Famers and a ridiculous number of all-star games on their resumes. They're going to have get unexpected moments from unlikely stars. They're going to have to find a way to overcome Jeter and A-Rod with Brignac and Aybar.
Think about it. When outfielder Carl Crawford was ejected Monday, Rays manager Joe Maddon didn't have to bring in Brignac, his backup second baseman, to replace him. He did. It worked.
On Monday night, Maddon had a bench filled with options. Seeking a right-handed bat, he could have used Rocco Baldelli or Sean Rodriguez or Desmond Jennings or Kelly Shoppach or even switch-hitter Dioner Navarro.
Instead, he went with Willy Aybar.
"Willy's had a lot of pinch hits around here," Maddon said. "I just felt like the matchup was best for him. And if they changed pitchers, he was a switch-hitter, which made it a one-man move."
Never mind that Aybar hadn't hit a home run in his last 47 games. Never mind that he was hitting .194 over his last 34 games. Never mind that he was 1-for-7 in September. This was Willy's kind of moment. This was the night he was going to do his best Reid Brignac impersonation.
Sure enough, when Aybar drove a 1-2 pitch over the leftfield wall for a three-run homer to give his team a 7-6 lead, Maddon had once again found the right button to push. Put it this way: There is nothing like a three-run homer to make a manager smarter, is there?
"This is how we have to compete," Maddon said. "We need moments from players like Aybar and Brignac and Dan Johnson and Matt Joyce and Rodriguez. You can talk about the stars, but we need those guys, too."
Oh, the Rays could use a little Garza, too.
Once again, he didn't last through the fifth. Once again, he lacked the command that has defined his better performances. Over his past two starts, Garza has pitched nine innings, allowed 12 runs and 18 hits. Six of those were home runs. That will furrow the brow of a few Rays' fans today.
As for Maddon, he said he isn't concerned. Garza, he said, is healthy and just struggling through mechanical flaws.
Let's hope Maddon is right. With the decisions on Aybar and Brignac, he seems to be on a roll. Back in 2008, if you'll remember, Maddon got into the same kind of groove where it seemed he could do no wrong.
In a lot of days since then, right or wrong, Maddon has frustrated a lot of fans in Tampa Bay. Now that his brain has made a comeback, perhaps fans will appreciate him more.
After all, the farther in front a team is, the smarter the manager looks.
Eighteen games left, and Maddon still has a chance to be Brainiac.