It's obvious what the Rays want to be playing for the rest of this month: a chance to get back to the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. But, barring a dramatic run and a collapse by the Red Sox or Yankees (and potentially the Angels-Rangers runnerup, too), they are more likely to be playing for less-rewarding, though important, goals:
Awards AL manager of the year
There is going to be a lot of talk about Jim Leyland, who has the Tigers in first place in the Central, and there already has been about Manny Acta, who had the Indians there for much of the season. There will be some about whichever manager wins the duel in the West, the Rangers' Ron Washington or the Angels' Mike Scioscia. There even is some chatter about the Yankees' Joe Girardi, for how he handled his patchwork starting staff and, believe it or not, the Red Sox's Terry Francona, even though he had the best team from the start and it may have underachieved. But in terms of doing the most with the least, have any of them done a better job than the Rays' Joe Maddon? Consider the players who left during the winter, the first-week losses of Manny Ramirez and Evan Longoria (for a month) and the bullpen reconstruction. Acta would be the closest but finishing runnerup in the AL Central isn't quite the same as hanging with the beasts of the East. (The same theory would apply to the Rays' Andrew Friedman as executive of the year, but that tends to go with teams that win a title.)
AL rookie of the year
RHP Jeremy Hellickson, above, has a good shot, as he's first in ERA (3.01) and innings (155⅓) and second in wins (11). Even better if word gets out on this stat: In nine of his 10 losses, the Rays scored zero or one run.
OF Desmond Jennings, while posting impressive numbers — a .316 average, eight home runs, 20 RBIs and a .975 on-base plus slugging percentage — is more of a long shot given that he wasn't called up until late July and will play in fewer than 65 games.
1B Casey Kotchman, above, with one error and a .999 fielding percentage, should be the favorite; 3B Evan Longoria, 13 and .958, would be a long shot for another.
Accomplishments Potential AL leaders
• INF/OF Ben Zobrist, left, second in doubles at 43, tied for fifth in extra-base hits at 64.
• 1B Casey Kotchman, fifth in average at .319 (no Ray has finished higher than seventh).
• RHP Joel Peralta, first in appearances at 63.
• RHP James Shields, first with 10 complete games, tied for first with four shutouts.
• DH Johnny Damon needs two stolen bases to join Paul Molitor as the only players in MLB history with 400 steals, 200 homers and 100 triples. He will be the ninth with 400/200. Damon also needs to play in 12 more games to become the fourth to play in at least 140 for 16 straight seasons.
• CF B.J. Upton needs two homers for Justin and him to become the first brothers in MLB history to go 20-20 in the same season, with 20 homers and 20 steals.
• James Shields and LHP David Price could become the fourth AL duo in the past 20 years with 200-plus strikeouts each. Shields' decrease in ERA from 5.18 last season to 2.84 is presently the third-best one-year improvement since the 1969 start of divisional play.
Two of the more interesting decisions the Rays face are whether to try to re-sign DH Johnny Damon and 1B Casey Kotchman. Damon, who made $5.25 million, added a lot on and off the field, and he wants to return. But in a power-starved lineup it might be tough to commit to him as the DH for another full season. Kotchman was a surprising success, with a .320 average even after a three-week slump to go with his dazzling defense, and a stellar bargain with a $750,000 salary. The questions are how much the first number might go down and how much the second has to go up. Another free agent is RHP Juan Cruz.
The Rays have options on three players, though only one would seem close to a tough decision. It seems obvious they would say yes to RHP James Shields' $7 million option (as opposed to a $2 million buyout) and no to C Kelly Shoppach's $3.2 million option (and pay him a $300,000 buyout). The interesting one is RHP Kyle Farnsworth's $3.3 million option (vs. a $650,000 buyout), but if the Rays are sure he's healthy and confident he can be nearly as good next year, it's probably not that hard a call.
First time: LHP David Price, RHP Jeff Niemann; Second: RHP Andy Sonnanstine; Third: OF B.J. Upton, LHP J.P. Howell; Fourth: RHP Joel Peralta
Manager Joe Maddon's agent, Alan Nero, was in Texas last week, but there were no indications talks had begun yet on an expected extension, with Maddon heading into the last season of his current deal. … Was St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster being encouraging or giving away the ending to the stadium issue when he concluded the letter outlining his plan with the line, "Go Rays!"? … The collapse of the Mets' sale to David Einhorn doesn't mean anything to the Rays, but it can't be good if they remain unsettled as the stadium stalemate continues to test Stu Sternberg's patience. Rays limited partner Randy Frankel could also re-emerge as a Mets bidder. … Chicago media has cooled on the Friedman-to-the-Cubs angle. … ESPN's Jayson Stark described Maddon as "a visionary kind of guy whose embrace of technology, info and outside-the-box thinking has made him, for all intents and purposes, the Steve Jobs of managers."
Got a minute? Brandon Guyer
Must-see TV? Can I give you two? 24 and Dexter.
Big-night-out meal? Usually get a big steak, with some creamed spinach.
Singer or band you'd want to be on stage with? Lil' Wayne.
Worst job? Little League umpire; it was the worst because the parents are horrible, they get on you about everything.
With your wife Lindsay's permission, dream date? Brooklyn Decker.