Either there's going to be a much bigger story here, or the Rays are going to the playoffs, opening Oct. 6 at Minnesota or home against Texas. But before they get there, several other story lines — in addition to what kind of champagne they'll spray when they clinch a playoff berth, potentially next weekend — are worth following:
Ties that bind
The Rays, of course, can't win the AL East title this week.
But they can take a big step toward making sure they come out ahead if they end up tied.
How is that? If the Rays and Yankees finish tied and both are in the postseason, there's no playoff game to determine the division champ and who is the wild card. A series of tiebreakers will do that.
The first is season series, which the Rays lead 8-6. So if they win two of the four games at Yankee Stadium, they're assured of the tiebreaker.
And as long as they don't get swept, they're still pretty well set because the next tiebreaker is intradivision record, and through play Saturday, the Rays had a substantial lead, 39-26 (.600) to 33-25 (.569).
That other race
The Rays' first priority, of course, is to get into the playoffs. Second, they've made it very clear how much they value winning the AL East, in large part because they'd have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
But maybe not.
While the Rays have been working to hold off the Red Sox for the wild card and beat out the Yankees for the division title, the Twins have quietly sneaked right into the running for the AL's top record — and homefield advantage in the ALDS and ALCS that would come with it.
That race for homefield advantage looks like this:
Team W-L GB
Twins 89-59 1
Rangers 83-64 6 1/2
Minis, or Texas-sized?
The Rays don't get to pick the team they play, but they will determine their first-round opponent by whether they win the East and face the Rangers or end up the wild card and meet the Twins. So which is a better matchup for them?
It's tough — tougher than you might think — to say. Both have good pitching, rotations topped with a dominant lefty (Texas' Cliff Lee, Minnesota's Francisco Liriano), a lineup featuring an ex-Rays No. 1 draft pick (Texas LF Josh Hamilton, Minnesota LF Delmon Young), deep bullpens, aggressive styles.
Why they'd prefer Texas: The Rays are 4-2 against the Rangers and would have homefield advantage; the Rangers have a losing record on the road; Hamilton's potential injury absence is a bigger void than 1B Justin Morneau not returning to the Twins; weather could be an issue in Minnesota; several key Rangers (SS Elvis Andrus, closer Neftali Feliz) lack playoff experience; Texas pitchers allow more walks and steals; the Rangers are below average defensively.
Why they'd prefer Minnesota: The Twins play more of the Rays' style of pitching and defense, whereas the Rangers could get homer-happy; postseason ace Lee is a Ranger; the Twins bullpen is less stable; the Rays' speed plays well in the vastness of Target Field; the Twins don't run much; the Rays are 5-3 against them.
Though the Rays aren't looking ahead, they're thinking about it, with myriad decisions pending in setting a 25-man playoff roster.
That's because only about 15 spots are absolutely lock-solid set.
Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate and Rafael Soriano.
David Price, Matt Garza, James Shields and (most likely) Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann.
Jason Bartlett, Carl Crawford, John Jaso, Evan Longoria, Carlos Peña, B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist.
Obviously several others are quite likely, such as Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez, and certain other spots have to be filled, such as two (or three) more relievers and a second, and potentially third, catcher.
But because of their depth and great versatility, the Rays will have to make some tough choices (Dan Johnson vs. Brad Hawpe? Rocco Baldelli vs. Willy Aybar vs. Reid Brignac? Chad Qualls vs. Dan Wheeler?).
And that's why you've seen, and will see, some interesting moves (pitching rookies Jeremy Hellickson and Jake McGee vs. the Yankees, playing Hawpe at first, using Dioner Navarro as a defensive replacement) as they ponder potential postseason roles.
Assuming they get there, manager Joe Maddon said, "There are a lot of either/ors. And it is going to be tricky."
Plus, they have the flexibility, if they finish the season with the three players now on the DL (LHP J.P. Howell, OF Gabe Kapler and C Jose Lobaton), of including three players — regardless of position — who weren't on the roster by Aug. 31 — for example, Navarro, Baldelli and Hellickson or McGee.
Manager Joe Maddon, who has a condo in South Tampa, has been house-hunting for bigger digs in the area. … Bench coach Dave Martinez, already mentioned in connection with the Marlins and Mariners managing jobs, might be a candidate in Toronto. … In addition to TV analyst Kevin Kennedy's future, the Rays face another looming issue as radio broadcaster Andy Freed is finishing a one-year deal. (Partner Dave Wills is signed through 2011). … The Rays will look first internally to replace departing Triple-A pitching coach Xavier Hernandez, with Bill Moloney (Double A) and Neil Allen (Class A) among the possibilities. … LHP David Price is blowing bubbles in a Sports Illustrated photo shoot that might end up a cover shot. … RHP Joaquin Benoit was sixth on Jon Heyman's SI.com list of the year's most pleasant surprises; 1B Carlos Peña was fifth, the Upton brothers 14th, SS Jason Bartlett 18th and RHP James Shields 20th on the "unpleasant" side.
Got a minute? Jake McGee
Best meal you can make? Steak on the grill and potatoes.
Favorite late-night TV show? I don't have any late-night shows, but I watch reruns of Las Vegas a lot during the day.
Karaoke song if you had to? Some kind of classic rock, like Rolling Stones or Poison.
Time-killer at the mall? I'll walk around a lot, go to stores like PacSun, Aldo, Dillard's.
With your wife Morgan's permission, dream date? Angelina Jolie