ST. PETERSBURG — So what do you think now?
Are the Rays still alive in their longer-shot-every-day bid to win the last American League playoff spot? Or was Wednesday's frustrating loss the one that made you finally give up on them?
Taking two of three from the team holding the second wild-card spot, the Rays currently covet what would seem like a successful series.
But it sure didn't feel that way after Wednesday's 10-6 matinee loss to the Twins, as the Rays battled back three times to tie only to give the game away in a sloppy seventh inning.
"We just had so many opportunities to win this ball game and everybody was fighting," rightfielder Steven Souza Jr. said. "So, yes, we know we gained a game. Could have gained three, which would have been an enormous swing. I think that's more what we feel right now is that we had the chance to gain three games, but we gained one."
The loss left the Rays back under .500 at 70-71 and three games behind the Twins, who moved back ahead of the Angels. Plus the Rays have the Orioles and Rangers in between, and the Mariners and Royals hovering.
More importantly, it left Tampa Bay with even less of a margin of error, having to go on a sizzling run, one it hasn't been anywhere close to all season.
A reasonable and educated guess is it will take 86 wins to be the fifth and final qualifier in the AL tournament.
So with 21 games left, that means the Rays would have to go 16-5, give or take a game.
That's tough enough, even more considering all those games are against contenders with better records — six each with the Red Sox and Yankees, seven with the Orioles and a pair with Joe Maddon's Cubs.
Consider this is a Rays team that hasn't won more than four straight this season, and they've only had that opportunity three times.
"It's hard to put a number on it because you never know what the other teams are going to do," veteran Evan Longoria said. "But we definitely have to play … the thought has to be that you have to play well over .500. Series wins for sure, and series sweeps even better. We can't drop two out of three, that's just the reality of it at this point. We've got to win two out of three and probably three out of three."
That's what made Wednesday's loss sting so much, that they did enough right to win — rallying to tie it 1-1, 4-4 and 6-6, each time on what seemed like an even bigger home run — but more wrong in the end, failing to complete a sweep that was sitting there.
Starter Blake Snell, who had been their hottest starter, wasn't sharp and failed to get through the fifth. And Steve Cishek, who had been their most effective reliever with 18 straight scoreless outings, faltered in the seventh, making a couple of bad pitches and an even worse throw. And then, manager Kevin Cash acknowledged, "after that we just kind of ran out of gas a little bit."
"We fought as hard as we could," Longoria said. "I think everybody in the dugout knows the importance of trying to win every game. … I think everybody is a little disappointed. But take the good with the bad. We're still a game closer to them."
The Rays face much uncertainty right now, including — to interject real life into a baseball column — when they will be able to return from Boston after the weekend series based on the impact of Hurricane Irma, and what they will come back to in terms of damage to the area.
But they remain confident that the team they put on the field is good enough to win the playoff spot from the field they're in.
"I think on paper … we're the most capable lineup, bullpen starting staff, the three facets that facilitate winning," starter Chris Archer said., "I honestly think that we are."
But without much margin.
"It's shrinking, but there are (21) ball games left," Cash said. "Like I said, if it comes down to one game and we're kicking ourselves, we can probably pull many games out of a hat.
"I liked the way the team played. Set the tone the first night, won a tight ball game (Tuesday) and we really fought and climbed back into this one."
A good enough sign to go 16-5?
"I haven't done the math, but I know we have to win a lot of games to get back in it and win the wild card," Souza said. "That's why this was an important game."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.