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Rays have proven worthy of faith

CHICAGO — Strangely enough, this may be the time to be thankful.

Thankful for the seven-game losing streak before the All-Star break. Thankful for the temporary September collapse. Thankful, even, for all the losses in all the seasons that came before.

For those are the hardships that matter today. Those are the memories that taught the Rays about faith.

And, come October, there are few commodities more precious than faith.

Tampa Bay lost a postseason baseball game for the first time on Sunday, and the rest of us were suddenly struck with how devastating that can feel. One afternoon in a cold, damp ballpark made you doubt what you were absolutely certain of just a few hours earlier.

Now, the Rays are only two losses away from elimination. Two! Do you know how many times they lost at least two in a row this season? The correct answer is 13. And do you know how many years another two losses will take off your life? The correct answer is more than you can afford.

"You're not going to sweep through three series' without losing a game. That's not how it works," rightfielder Rocco Baldelli said. "We've been through enough tough times to understand how to bounce back. We always believe we're going to get the job done, there's really no question about that."

What Baldelli is talking about, of course, is faith. The kind of faith that must be earned. And, ultimately, that's what the previous six months have been all about.

For every time it seemed Tampa Bay was about to fall apart, the players found some way to hold off disaster. They survived losing streaks, injuries and bad haircuts. They survived when few thought it was possible.

"You've seen us all year. You've seen us bounce back from so much," designated hitter Cliff Floyd said. "We're never too high, and never too low, and I think that keeps us going more than anything else."

So the Rays have faith — even if they have a losing record on the road.

They have faith — even if Game 4 starter Andy Sonnanstine is winless in his past seven starts.

They have faith — even if the White Sox have a 17-game winner going today and a three-time All-Star lined up for a possible Game 5.

"We believe in ourselves. That's what this year has done for us," Sonnanstine said. "We've been picking each other up all year. If one pitcher has a rough game, the next guy in the rotation has been there to pick him. It seems like we never get too down, because someone is always there to pick you up. That's what families do for each other."

Look, there is ample reason to fret. The odds remain strongly in Tampa Bay's favor. But if you go day by day, it is easy to see how the White Sox could pull off a comeback.

Take today's Game 4. The White Sox have been a great team at home (54-28) and the Rays have been a mediocre team on the road (40-41). So would it be that much of a shock if Tampa Bay lost today?

And now consider a possible Game 5 on Wednesday. The Rays would be back home and they would have James Shields on the mound, but Chicago would counter with Mark Buehrle. And even though the Rays beat him at Tropicana on Friday night, they still struggle (25-24) against left-handed starters. So would that be a huge upset?

The thing is, the Rays understand all of this. They know how miniscule the difference is between winning and losing. And that's one of the reasons they have been so good this season.

More often than not, they do the things that matter in close games. They move the runner over. They hustle to avoid a double play. They hit the cutoff man, and they work the count.

They've done it all enough that it's no longer a surprise when games turn in their favor.

"I said it tonight," first baseman Carlos Pena said. "I came into the dugout and said, 'We've been here before. We've been here before.' This season has shown us how strong we can be. It's not always going to work out for us, but we give ourselves chances. We do that every day. We keep coming and coming and coming.

"You give yourself enough chances, you're going to win more than you lose."

The Rays did nothing spectacularly wrong in Sunday's 5-3 loss. Matt Garza was not as sharp or focused as he might have been, but he was not awful. The offense went 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position but still brought the tying run to the plate in each of the final three innings.

"It just wasn't our day," Floyd said. "As much as we want to go home and get out of this stuff, tomorrow is a new day. And we always bounce back."

In the end, this is just one more test. Sort of like the one in July when the Rays fell out of first place around the All-Star break. Or like the one in August when Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria went on the disabled list at the same time. Or like the one in September when the Red Sox made up 51/2 games in barely two weeks.

Each time the Rays have been challenged, they have proven themselves again.

At this point, they have faith.

How about you?

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Rays have proven worthy of faith 10/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 6, 2008 5:05pm]

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