Big game. Big series.
Rays vs. Red Sox. Even normally sleepy Tropicana Field had a bit of buzz to it Friday night. Okay, so it wasn't Fenway Park, and it didn't quite feel like October, but it did feel like a game that mattered.
And right now, the Rays are suddenly a team that matters playing games that matter.
Opening night of this key three-game series against those hated Red Sox, and David Price was throwing peas and Evan Longoria was hitting seeds. The Rays' two stars led the way to keep the winning streak going. It's now eight and counting after the 6-4 win.
This has come out of nowhere, a forgettable season that is turning into a memorable one.
You get up each morning and still check the standings. You still check the out-of-town scores. You still pay attention.
Just a few series ago, that seemed like a ridiculous notion.
Go back six weeks — heck, even more recent than that; go back a couple of weeks — and the Rays were a phone call away from trading ace pitcher Price and giving up on the 2014 season. Just last month — June 10, to be exact — the Rays had the worst record in baseball and were 15 games out of first place. They should have had the word "Devil" stitched back on their uniforms.
But then came a win. And then another. A few more. A warm streak turned into a hot one, and now the Rays are playing like the best team in baseball. They sliced their playoff chances from nonexistent to maybe. The division lead is within their sights. A wild card is within their reach.
With still more than two months to play, the Rays are alive and kicking.
"We're playing better baseball," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "At the beginning of the year, oftentimes — and I know it sounds like a broken record — we were just missing that hit, missing that pitch, missing whatever, we just weren't playing baseball well. We're now playing baseball well. And I really do anticipate that it's going to continue."
Two things come to mind at this point.
One, just imagine where the Rays would be if they hadn't gone completely over the cliff in the first two months. Instead of falling 18 games under .500 through the first 66 games, say they were six games under .500. Know what their record would be now? A solid 56-47, good enough for the second wild-card spot and nearly good enough to be leading the AL East.
The other thought is the Rays can't possibly keep this going, can they?
Right now, to reach 90 wins — which might not be good enough for the postseason — the Rays would have to go 40-19 the rest of the way. That's .677 baseball, and man, that's really hard to do for a nine-week stretch. And that would be on top of the .800 ball (20-5) the Rays have played the past month.
Who can keep that up? Not even the A's or Angels, the best two teams in baseball, are playing at that kind of clip for the season.
Eventually, over a span that long, you run into some lights-out pitching or your pitching runs into some bad luck and hot bats. At some point you're bound to lose seven out of 11, maybe 10 out of 16. That's just baseball. It happens to everybody, even the best teams. Because the Rays dug themselves such a deep hole, they can't afford such cold spells. There is no room for error.
It's like an NBA team that cuts a 25-point deficit to two but then ends up losing by a dozen. You wonder if the Rays have exerted so much energy just getting back into the race that they might not have much left in the tank to speed to the finish line.
Even Maddon understands that.
"But I think that the one thing that has worked in our favor is the (All-Star) break, three games, day off, two games, day off," Maddon said. "That's really unusual going into August. We have been very mindful of that, very mindful of giving guys a day off."
Maddon is a master at juggling his lineup and finding spots to rest his regulars. No manager is better at picking the right guy to come off the bench and contribute. And there's no question that the starting pitching is back to being elite, and good starting pitching gives any team a chance.
But there's one area that cannot be protected.
"I think the biggest problem is the bullpen," Maddon said. "To win games, and as you are trying to win that many, you can (have) some … overloading bullpen duress. And I think that would be my biggest concern."
And if there is one aspect that concerns you about this team, it is the bullpen, even when it is healthy and rested. This isn't to say the Rays can't pull off this miracle. If any manager and any team can do it, it's Maddon and the Rays. They've done this sort of thing before.
Still, they are going to have to play just as well the rest of the way as they have played the past few weeks, and there might not be any team capable of doing that.
But tell you what: It would probably be a good idea to pay attention for at least a little while longer. Just in case. You just might see something that you will never forget.