There is no next best thing to being in the race for a playoff spot in September. But having knocked themselves out months ago with their 3-24 midsummer debacle, the Rays will have to settle for the next next best thing.
With 24 of their final 28 games against playoff contenders — no American League team has more — including 21 East foes, the Rays still will get to experience what it's like to play in those type of high-intensity battles.
And many will be in intense, energized and occasionally hostile environments, as Thursday they open an 11-games-in-11-days trip through New York, Toronto and Baltimore. That's after facing the Blue Jays and Orioles this week, and before coming home to face the Yankees and Red Sox and finishing the season at Texas.
"There's nothing better than being in it. Nothing better," veteran RHP Kevin Jepsen said. "We're in a division with four teams that are trying to go to the playoffs, so even though we're not, it's a chance to play in the playoff race, if you will. So that's always fun. …
"You feel the difference. Those three games in Boston (last week), you feel the urgency for the other team. So the game has a different feel than if it's us playing against the Twins, per se. …
"Basically everybody we have left, there's a lot on the line for those guys. So when you're in their home parks, you feel it. Unfortunately, when they come here (to the Trop), we feel it here, too, like with the Red Sox (and their large number of fans). But at least the energy is there, even if it's not on our side. And that's what you miss when you're not in a playoff race."
There can be some significant benefit for the Rays, especially for their younger and less-experienced players — even All-Star closer Alex Colome, for example — to sample the excitement and intensity, the sights and sounds of true pennant race baseball. (Of the current crew, only Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Matt Duffy, Jepsen, Evan Longoria and Drew Smyly, plus Kevin Kiermaier, briefly, have been in the playoffs.)
"It's good experience to play in stadiums that are packed, that have those playoff-type atmospheres," Longoria said. "Those experiences are invaluable to our younger players and guys getting called up — being able to see that and to try and compete in that sort of environment."
How certain guys handle performing on this stage could be a helpful tool in evaluations, given the number of positions the Rays have open for 2017 such as catcher, corner outfield and bullpen.
Even manager Kevin Cash said playing in Toronto last September with crowds of 47,000-plus at each game was good experience for him as a first-timer in charge. "They were playing for a lot, and if there is more to be learned on that end, we would definitely welcome it," he said.
There would seem to be another element in play: The Rays have a chance to be a factor in the race by knocking out the rival Red Sox or one of the others.
But there doesn't seem to be much solace in spoiling someone else's season.
"I never really like the term 'spoiler,' it just seems like you're a bad team that shouldn't be beating these guys," RHP Jake Odorizzi said. "I see it as we're playing playoff-caliber baseball this time of year, we're just not in it. But we're going to know what it's like next year when we're in a different situation.
"It's a good test for everybody on our team to see this is what it takes."
> In a frustrating season pockmarked with issues, manager Kevin Cash and the front office have made some aggressive moves in pulling Steven Souza Jr. from a game for a lack of hustle, releasing motivation-challenged Desmond Jennings with five weeks left and demoting Tim Beckham immediately after a game in which he made yet another baserunning blunder, plus another one or two disciplinary moves that were handled internally.
> Getting sent down not only was embarrassing for Beckham but costly. Even if called back up Tuesday, he loses five days of service time, which could impact Super 2 arbitration eligibility and cost him more than $6,000 based on the $1,230-a-day difference between his minor- and major-league salary. While calling him back up might seem to weaken the punishment, it makes business sense for the Rays to avoid burning his option (since his demotion lasted less than 20 days) so he can be sent down next year, wherever he is playing.
> Had 3B Evan Longoria not signed a second long-term deal, he would be a free agent after this season, which raises the question if he would get more or less than the six years and $100 million he has coming. A quick sampling of execs/scouts is that the total is about right, though he might get fewer years at a higher salary, meaning the Rays did well.
It's a big month for RHP Alex Cobb, who not only returned Friday from Tommy John elbow surgery but on Oct. 7 is turning 29 and getting married. … Triple-A Durham did a Twitter poll asking fans if they would "buy a ticket just to see" Tim Tebow if he signed. With 42 percent saying no, the Bulls tweeted, "So @RaysBaseball if you're inclined to sign him, don't necessarily do it for us." … OF Andrew Toles, released by the Rays in spring 2015 after personal/disciplinary issues, has been a big part of the Dodgers' playoff push, hitting .397. … Frank Howard, the 1998-99 Devil Rays bench coach, was inducted into the Nationals Ring of Honor in tribute to his All-Star career with the Senators.