TORONTO — The Rays insist they aren't doing anything differently, the pennant race isn't affecting them and, despite being swept by the Blue Jays and losing five of their past six, they aren't feeling any extra pressure going into tonight's opener of the showdown series in Boston.
At least, that's what they're saying.
The evidence, compounded by a 1-0 loss Sunday, says otherwise. They're not getting the big hits when they need them, they're making more mistakes and, most significantly, they're not winning like they did most of the past five months.
And all just in time for the Red Sox, who won again Sunday to slice the Rays' American League East lead to 1½ games, the thinnest since late July.
"It doesn't help, it doesn't give you that good vote of confidence," said Cliff Floyd, one of the Rays' few veterans who have been through significant Septembers. "We have to bring ourselves back down and do the little things we've been doing the whole season."
As much as they talk about how, with three weeks left, there is no reason to panic — manager Joe Maddon, perhaps symbolically, had a schedule in his hands during his postgame media session — they have reason to be wary of what lies ahead.
The Sox, with their top three pitchers lined up and their lineup fortified, have a chance to take over first place with a sweep, and Fenway Park — where the Rays haven't won since last September and will be playing for the first time since the June 5 brawl — will be ferocious the next three nights.
"We're real excited to play them," Sox manager Terry Francona said in Texas on Sunday. "We've played ourselves into a position where these games are really important. It's exciting."
The Rays (85-56) are trying not to look at it that way.
"We know what we've got to do, and we know what they've got to do," said pitcher Matt Garza, Sunday's hard-luck loser. "Right now, we're on top and they're chasing us. We keep playing our ball, this thing will turn around. We're in a little bit of a rut, five out of our last six, that's nothing bad."
Maddon insists the Rays haven't changed, that the preparation, the pregame banter, the dugout atmosphere is the same.
Further, he's not worried about it.
"There's still no concerns," Maddon said. "The motto, the mantra, has been to play with consistent effort, and we're doing that. Sometimes you lose when that happens. All the right things are there. (The Jays) just beat us. They're pitching really well, best pitching staff in the league. They've won eight in a row now. We happened to catch them at the wrong time. Those things happen."
That is part of the story, as Jays rookie left-hander David Purcey shut them down for the second time in two weeks, reversing the 1-0 score from Aug. 27.
But the Rays haven't been playing particularly well: Sunday they had two runners picked off, made two errors, failed to get down another bunt and went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.
"I think we might be putting a little bit of pressure on ourselves right now, and we've just got to loosen up and go play our game, play the way we've been playing all year," said centerfielder B.J. Upton, who made one of the baserunning mistakes.
The most common diagnosis in the clubhouse is that they aren't getting the breaks they were most of the season and thus are losing the kind of close games they had been winning. But at this time of year, they may have to make their own. And they might want to start in Boston.
"We have to go there and win, and that's part of it," veteran reliever Dan Wheeler said. "If we're going to win in October, this is where it begins."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]com