If the Rays are going to keep playing, there are a number of things they must do better to extend the American League Division Series with Boston beyond tonight's third game.
They have to be more productive, even by their reduced standards, offensively. They have to get more from their starting pitchers. They have to tighten up a defense that has been inexplicably messy.
But more than anything, they have to recapture the intensity, the determination, the urgency that carried them through last week's trio of elimination games in Toronto, Texas and Cleveland.
"It's not going to be easy, but I feel like being able to have gone through this situation with our backs against the wall, we've done it before, we know what it takes to do it again," said right-hander Alex Cobb, who starts tonight.
"There's just something different about the way this ballclub played when our lives were on the line. So hopefully we can see that show up again (tonight), and the next three nights."
It would seem only natural that after playing three games they absolutely, positively had to win, the Rays would relax knowing there was some wiggle room in a best-of-five series.
Manager Joe Maddon insisted again Sunday that that was not the case, that they were more energized than exhausted by the journey and that the back-to-back losses were more a matter of the Rays making mistakes and the Red Sox playing well enough to take full advantage.
But something was different, and they hope, obviously, to make the adjustment in time to prolong their season, banking on the energy from a sold-out Trop.
"We played up to our potential in Cleveland; we played a great game there. We played a great game in Texas," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "Those are national stages where I thought we showed the kind of team that we can be. We just have to bring that to this series."
The Rays have scored six runs in the first two games but are 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position, have left 12 men on while hitting into three double plays and have a team .194 average. The supposedly potent trio of Longoria, Ben Zobrist and rookie Wil Myers is a combined 2-for-20 with one RBI.
Of more concern, that's how it has gone much of the season, as the Sox held the Rays to a .232 average and 57 runs in winning 12 of the 19 regular-season games between the teams.
"Something we've been unable to do with these guys is score more runs," Maddon said. "We have not swung the bats well against them. Part of it is because they're so good on the mound. … But at some point we have to figure that out. We're running out of time."
Maddon said he didn't plan any significant changes to the lineup tonight, though he was undecided on whether to DH Matt Joyce, who is 6-for-22 against Boston starter Clay Buchholz, or stay with Delmon Young (1-for-9).
Play their game
The Rays made at least a half-dozen defensive mistakes that cost them extra bases if not runs — headlined by Myers' Friday gaffe — and that's something that obviously has to stop. (Getting away from the Green Monster will certainly help.)
But overall they haven't been able — insert credit to the Red Sox here — to play their kind of game, taking a lead and turning it over to their bullpen by the seventh or so, because they've been giving up too much early and aren't able to come back late.
"We have to play a better game," Maddon said. "More of our kind of a game — less mistakes."
Get more from starters
As good as the Rays felt about having Matt Moore and David Price lined up to pitch the first two games, it didn't work out too well as they combined for a 11.15 ERA, allowing seven runs each and 17 hits total in 11⅓ innings.
They feel good about having Cobb, who has been their most consistent starter and who won Wednesday's wild-card game, on the mound tonight. And Cobb said he is glad to be pitching at the Trop, for reasons beyond his 7-0, 2.81 mark there in 13 starts, given how often the Sox hitters benefited from their homefield advantage.
"I felt we pitched a lot better than what the box score looked like," Cobb said. "I'm not taking away those 19 runs that they got, but there's definitely a different game to be played outside of Fenway Park."
If they get to Game 4 , Jeremy Hellickson will be on the mound, presumably with a short leash, and Price set for a potential Game 5.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.