The calendar hanging on your kitchen wall still shows five days remaining in August. But that's a mere technicality. In the baseball world, it might as well be September already. That's how it looks and feels for the Rays, who tonight plunge into their final 35 games in position for a riveting finish — even with the Yankees atop the American League East and wary of the Red Sox lurking 5½ games back.
"It's definitely crunch time," pitcher James Shields said.
"Definitely time to go," centerfielder B.J. Upton said.
Any way you look at it, their remaining schedule should make for a thrilling ride, highlighted by 13 games against their two closest foes — seven (all in an 11-day stretch) with the Yankees and six with the Sox, starting tonight at Tropicana Field with the first of several increasingly critical series.
"This is the best part," Saturday's starter Matt Garza said. "This is what you play for. You don't play for the 'nice outings.' This is what we play for — that haul to go to the postseason. It's going to be a lot of fun these last 4-5 weeks."
"I get goose bumps just thinking about it," reliever Dan Wheeler said. "This is what you do all the work for, to put ourselves to be in September to make a final push into the playoffs."
Some things to keep in mind as they do:
First things first
The race with the Yankees could come down to the final days of the season. But the Rays could take a big step toward pushing the Red Sox out of the picture, or at least to the edge of the frame, with a sweep this weekend.
"We have to attack it like we have a one-game lead, stay aggressive and hopefully put them in a hole so we have a little bit of breathing room," Wheeler said. "We don't want to let them back into anything."
The Sox know it, too, with DH David Ortiz telling MLB.com it's "a ride-or-die situation."
Been there, done that
Unlike 2008 when it was all new to them, the majority of the Rays know what to expect.
They know about the intensity of September baseball, the increased scrutiny and demands, the potential distractions, and the sweet satisfaction of getting through it.
And that should make it better the second time around.
"I don't know that it makes it any less stressful or easier, but that 'unknown' component is no longer there," manager Joe Maddon said. "You know what it feels like, and you know what it looks like.
"And the thing I'd like to believe is that you understand you don't have to get any smarter or any better, just come out ready to play every day. That's why we always talk of playing the same game regardless of the date; you don't want anything to change."
There is tangible benefit to winning the AL East (and having the league's best record) as opposed to being the wild card, primarily homefield advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
And, for now anyway, that's what most of the Rays are shooting for.
"I think that absolutely has to be the focus," Wheeler said. "I like the way 'Division Champs' sounds better than 'Wild-card Champs.' "
"We want to win the division," Shields said. "I don't want to be the wild-card champ. I remember when they put that first banner up (at the Trop), and it was a division champs banner. That was pretty special."
But if the standings change in the next few weeks, and the Rays are battling more with the Red Sox (or White Sox) just to make the playoffs, their view will, too.
"We'd love to win the division," leftfielder Carl Crawford said. "But we just want to get in."
"You don't have a chance to win it if you don't get in it," catcher Kelly Shoppach said. "So it doesn't really matter how you do it."
What did you expect?
The potential for a three-team race to the finish is unusual in baseball, and certainly exciting. Just don't consider it surprising, because Maddon has been calling it this way since the start of spring training.
"I never expected anything else; I truly did not," he said. "What do we have, 78 wins right now? That's pretty good. But so does somebody else. And there's another one not that far behind."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]ptimes.com.