The Rays were saying all the right things Friday afternoon about being confident and optimistic they could make a historic comeback from their 2-0 deficit and still prevail over the Rangers in the best-of-five division series. But it was the loud, raucous sounds during their Continental 737 chartered flight and subsequent bus ride to their Fort Worth hotel on Thursday night — laughing, joking, teasing, yelling out answers to the Scene It video game — that is the reason they feel so good about their chances. "It was just comedy," Carlos Peña said. "If I saw guys just sitting in their seats or reading a newspaper or trying to sleep, I would worry. But it was the total opposite. … If you would have been on the flight, you would have thought we'd won it already."
The theory is that somewhere along the path to winning the American League East, finishing with the league's best record, earning homefield advantage and being tabbed favorites over the Rangers, the Rays lost their way.
"We put too much pressure on ourselves, and that's not who this team is," reliever Randy Choate said. "It was like everyone got on the flight and was like, 'Whew!' What makes this team great is the team chemistry, and we hadn't had a lot of that going on lately. It was who we had been the whole year and not who we'd been through the first two games of this playoff series."
Now they have to show the same on the field.
As bad as the hitting has been, as sloppy as the defense, as mistake-prone as the pitching, the Rays are convinced they can best turn things around by being the Rays.
"We've got to start being us a little bit more consistently," manager Joe Maddon said. "We have not played well the first two games — whether it's pitching, hitting or defense. We really have not played up to our capabilities. If we just get back to being us for several days, we'll be just fine."
So how can they do it?
They gotta believe
If the Rays aren't confident they can make a comeback, then nothing else will matter, they insist.
"We have to win it from the inside out," said first baseman Peña, who called a team meeting after Friday's workout.
"It starts with that, believing and being ourselves. It's almost, as strange as it sounds, like the challenge is not to beat the other team. It's more about, despite the circumstances, can you believe in yourself, be yourself and know 100 percent that that's enough? So it's almost Zen-like."
And their feeling seems to be that if they survive today, they'll have the confidence — and the momentum — to win again Sunday and bring the series back to the Trop for Game 5 on Tuesday.
The Rays' primary problem has been their lack of offense — obvious given their one run and eight hits (and .125 team batting average) through the first two games.
But the problem runs deeper than that. They're not having the kind of quality at-bats to get men on base, which they need to set their offense in motion. Of the 70 times the Rays have come to the plate, only 16 times have they reached base. In 10 of their 18 innings, three outs came in 13 or fewer pitches.
Hitting coach Derek Shelton said the precision pitching by the Rangers has been the primary problem as they are getting ahead (49 of 70 first-pitch strikes) and putting the Rays on the defensive.
He wants them to stick with their approach, be patient on pitches out of their zone and be aggressive early in the count on the ones that are. What will help is having the left-handers in the lineup (John Jaso, Dan Johnson and Matt Joyce), and Rangers righty Colby Lewis isn't as sharp as Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson, the Game 1 and 2 starters, respectively.
The Rays have to pitch better, specifically minimizing the magnitude of their mistakes, especially the four homers. And even more important, avoiding the situations that led to them. Nelson Cruz homered on a 3-and-0 pitch (and Vlad Guerrero similarly doubled in a run) and Ian Kinsler on 2-and-0.
"We've got to stay away from the big inning and big blow," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "If we make these guys string together four or five base hits to beat us, it's going to be difficult for them to do. But if we get into fastball counts and give fastballs to fastball hitters, we're probably going to pay the price like we have in the first two games. We need to avoid getting behind. We need to work ahead, which has been our mantra all year."
There are, obviously, some daunting historical stats that show how tough a task the Rays face.
Of the 59 teams that lost the first two games of any best-of-five series, only four came back to win. And only one, the 2001 Yankees — with Choate and Rays special adviser Don Zimmer in pinstripes — won after losing the first two at home.
Maddon, already channeling the 1917 White Sox, is open to further inspiration: "We're already riding the 'first team to be no-hit twice in the same season and win a World Series,' so let's ride this one, too. It's been done before; of course it can be done."
And there are some numbers in their favor: a major-league best 47-34 road record, 12 win streaks of three or more games, five series in which they lost the first two games but won the next one (or two, most recently in New York and Kansas City).
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]