It begins quietly, just an inkling that all is not lost.
A few victories in a row, perhaps. Maybe a key injury on another team, followed by a walkoff homer at a time when few people are paying attention.
Before you know it, the Red Sox are in town and you've got yourself a full-blown case of pennant fever. So it is with the best of intentions, that I suggest to you now:
Take two strikes and call me in the morning.
The three-game series with the Red Sox beginning tonight at Tropicana Field may be thrilling. It may be must-see baseball. It may even be a three-game Rays sweep.
But do not expect it to be the start of a new October.
I do not say this to be a party pooper or a contrarian. And it is not because I have too little faith in the Rays or too much respect for the Red Sox. It is simply because I trust history. And history pretty much says it ain't going to happen.
The Rays are 6½ games behind the Red Sox for the AL wild card with 20 games remaining, and that kind of comeback is about as common as a profitable newspaper.
Sure, it helps that Tampa Bay has seven games remaining against Boston. And it helps that Red Sox ace Josh Beckett has a bum ankle.
But it would help a lot more if the Rays had given some recent indication their offense was capable of coming through against good pitching. In the past month, the Rays have faced contending teams (New York, Boston, Detroit and Texas) on 15 occasions, and they could only manage an average of 2.67 runs per game.
Look at it this way:
This is the time of year when we begin talking about magic numbers for teams in contention. Okay, so Tampa Bay's magic number is 27. That means, if the Red Sox stumble to an 8-11 finish, the Rays would still have to go 16-4 to finish ahead of them.
On the plausibility scale, that falls between "Holy crap!" and "Thanks for your support on the stadium, Mr. Selig."
The lure, of course, is that it has happened before. Happened memorably. Happened gloriously or regrettably, depending on your point of view.
Happened just enough times that you cling to the stories and recite them like liturgy.
The collapse of the 1964 Phillies, when manager Gene Mauch panicked and started pitchers Jim Bunning and Chris Short in 13 of the last 20 games.
The charge of the 1951 Giants, culminating in Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round the World on the season's final day at the Polo Grounds.
The demise of the 2007 Mets, whose seven-game lead evaporated in 17 games, including 300-game winner Tom Glavine getting bombed in the season finale.
Yes, they are part of baseball lore, but they are also aberrations. Long shots. Maybe 100-1 or greater.
Even some of baseball's greatest comebacks have not required this much ground to be made up in such a short period of time. The Yankees were a half-game behind the Red Sox at this point in 1978. The Mets had already passed the Cubs by now in 1969. The Braves and Giants were separated by one game with 20 to go in 1993.
In other words, a Rays comeback should have been in full gear by now. They were 7½ games behind in the wild card 10 days ago and 7½ games back 10 days before that.
The frustration is Tampa Bay's blueprint almost worked. The starting pitching has been as good as any in the American League, the defense has been stellar and the rebuilt bullpen was adequate. The Rays knew the offense would be below par, but they didn't expect it to be quite this inefficient.
Manager Joe Maddon remains confident because he lived through a historic late-season turnaround with the Angels 16 years ago, but he does not hide from the possibility that a weak offense may have cost the Rays a shot at the pennant.
"We thought we'd get more offense. We did," Maddon said. "We thought Manny (Ramirez) would supply a lot of that. And just by him being there, the protection he would have provided for (Evan Longoria), and what that could have done for Longo.
"And it never happened. There were guys we were counting on that just didn't show up the way we'd hoped."
The irony is the Rays will probably be home for October, but they could have been a heck of a dark horse if they could have just gotten in the race.
"It just stinks because I know we're a good enough team that if somehow we could sneak in there, with our pitching and our defense, we would have a chance to win," DH Johnny Damon said. "But that's why you play 162, and you have to be consistent throughout."
So enjoy the Boston series. Enjoy the final 20 games of the regular season, and enjoy checking the standings each morning.
Just don't get your hopes too high.
It will only make the end more painful.