We know what the Rays, collectively and ultimately, are playing for over the next 2½ weeks: a spot in the playoffs with the chance to advance, for the second time in five years, to the World Series. But along the way there are a few other topics of discussion:
Awards AL Cy Young
In LHP David Price and RHP Fernando Rodney, the Rays have two of the leading candidates, at the least, manager Joe Maddon said, "two of the top five." Price, who returned to action impressively Friday after skipping a start with shoulder soreness, leads the majors in ERA (2.54) and the AL with 18 wins (plus two no-decisions for eight shutout innings). But like in 2010, when he was 19-6, 2.72, but finished second to Seattle's Felix Hernandez (13-12, 2.27) the vote — done by two writers in each of the 14 AL cities — is hard to handicap. Since there were separate league awards beginning in 1967, 18 of the 19 pitchers to lead either in wins and ERA won. But the starting candidates are many: Hernandez, Chicago's Chris Sale, Detroit's Justin Verlander, L.A.'s Jered Weaver. Rodney has less of a chance, just from the historical bias alone. It's rare for closers to win the award — just three times in the AL in 45 years (Rollie Fingers, '81; Willie Hernandez, '84; Dennis Eckersley, '92). But Rodney is having a historic season, not only leading the majors in saves but with the lowest ERA (0.66 through Friday) of all relievers with a minimum of 50 innings. He is in line to join Eckersley (1990) as only the second pitcher in MLB history to finish a season with 40-plus saves and a sub-1.00 ERA.
AL Manager of the Year
Getting this Rays team into the playoffs would get Maddon some consideration for a third award in five years. But there are pretty strong cases for what Buck Showalter has done in Baltimore and Bob Melvin in Oakland. Plus, first-timer Robin Ventura in Chicago.
AL Rookie of the Year
LHP Matt Moore was among the preseason favorites, but the Angels promotion of OF Mike Trout took care of that. A slow start hurt, too; Moore may not make the top three.
Of the 10 bigger-name potential free agents on the roster, CF B.J. Upton is, by far, in the best position to get paid. And based on his recent play he's upping the price, with early chatter he could get $12 million to $15 million for four or five years. Upton, to his credit, said he is solely focused on winning with the Rays rather than what will happen when he leaves: "Not worried about it at all."
Other potential free agents: INF Jeff Keppinger; 1B Carlos Peña; LHP J.P. Howell; RHPs Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta.
Rays hold options: C Jose Molina; DH Luke Scott; RHPs Fernando Rodney, James Shields.
These Rays are always creating interesting notations for what they do or don't do. And there's a chance for some pretty historic accomplishments:
• Their pitchers, with 1,215 strikeouts, could break the AL record for a season (1,266, 2001 Yankees) and record the lowest opponents average (.231) of the DH era. They could become the first team since the 1947 Yankees to lead the majors in ERA, strikeouts and opponents average, and second to lead the AL in the past 25 years ('99 Red Sox).
• Upton could be the first to lead the Rays in homers, RBIs and steals in one season.
• Price, with 18 wins, could be their first 20-game winner; Rodney is two saves from the team record of 45.
The Rays can't be pleased with the '13 schedule: an additional game vs. AL East teams (rather than a more balanced format they prefer), no weekend home series with Boston, 21 consecutive games at the end (one off day in the final 35), five two-game series, four off days on the road. … OF Sam Fuld lines up to qualify for arbitration as a Super 2. … TV guys Todd Kalas and Dewayne Staats are among 41 candidates for Hall of Fame's Frick award ballot; vote on facebook.com/baseballhall. … Ex-Ray Gabe Kapler will play for Israel in this week's WBC qualifying tournament in Jupiter. … So now that it's crunch time, does it make sense that the Rays radio pregame game show (full disclosure: which Times writers appear on) doesn't air on the flagship station weekdays so there's more time for Bucs talk?
Got a minute? Matt Joyce
Something you're scared of? There's lots of things; let's go with poisonous creatures.
Late-night snack? Any kind of candy or chocolate — bad sweet tooth.
Karaoke song if you had to? Livin' on a Prayer.
Favorite TV show? I've been watching Game of Thrones lately.
Celebrity crush? Jessica Biel.