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September arrives for Rays, as does the pressure

Shawn Riggans throws his bat in the air after striking out in the third inning. Tuesday marked the beginning of 19 games in 20 days against teams chasing the Rays in the East and wild card.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Shawn Riggans throws his bat in the air after striking out in the third inning. Tuesday marked the beginning of 19 games in 20 days against teams chasing the Rays in the East and wild card.

ST. PETERSBURG — Nothing is different. Not the rotation, not the lineup, not the bullpen. Not the weight of their bats, the smell of their gloves, or the fit of their collars. Really, nothing is different.

Except for the calendar.

And maybe your nerves.

September baseball arrived in Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, and it wasn't nearly as much fun as they make it appear in the history books. Not even the ones written about the Cubs.

It was, you could argue, the most significant loss in Rays history. Not because it was sloppy. (It was.) And not because it was particularly heartbreaking. (It wasn't.)

It was significant because Tampa Bay has never gotten so far into a season with so much at stake. And it will be that way from now until the Rays clinch or collapse.

Take that however you wish. It could mean this will be the most magical month of baseball you have ever witnessed. The kind of month you will talk about for years and years. Or it could be the most disheartening few weeks of baseball you have ever endured. The type of memories you can never purge.

"Pressure is a good thing, pressure is a positive," manager Joe Maddon said. "Without it, you're pretty much just wrapping it up and going home on the last day of the year. When you're a professional athlete, if the word pressure is applied in a positive sense like this, it's a really good thing. And it's something you can feed off of."

Look, I'm not trying to come off as an alarmist. Even great teams lose 60 times a season, and it was silly to think the Rays would cruise through September the same way they rolled through August.

The point is the Rays have passed every crucial test they have been handed this season. They survived a seven-game losing streak before the All-Star break. They survived a disabled list cattle call. They even survived tough losses in the past couple of weeks against the White Sox and the Blue Jays.

And now they have just one thing left to prove:

That they can look their pursuers in the eyes and not blink.

Beginning Tuesday night, the Rays have 19 games in 20 days against teams still chasing them in the American League East and the wild-card race. Based on everything we have seen, it should be easy to have faith.

This team has enough starting pitching to avoid a prolonged malaise. It has enough youth and energy to keep from wilting. It has a big enough lead in the standings that a small stumble should not be a problem.

Except, we all know it happens.

On this date a year ago, the Mets had a five-game lead in the National League East. The Phillies ended up winning, and the Mets went home. Need more? Also on this date a year ago, the Padres led the Rockies by five games. They ended up tying for the NL wild card, and the Rockies won a one-game playoff.

We've heard about the computer models that say the Rays are practically a cinch to make the playoffs. Over at Baseball Prospectus, they suggest the Rays have a 99.63 percent chance of reaching the postseason.

The problem is those computer simulations are based on the statistics of the previous five months. They do not take into account the atmosphere changing in September. The air getting thinner and throats growing drier.

The Rays did not play a particularly good game against the Yankees on Tuesday night. Instead of big hits, they made big mistakes. They ran into outs. They threw balls away. Matt Garza could not keep the ball down, and the bullpen could not keep the game close.

This was nothing new. The Rays have had their share of stinko games along the way, so there is nothing to suggest this was anything more than a bad night.

Except it was their first game of September and their first game of a hellish stretch including 12 games against New York and Boston. In case you hadn't noticed, the Rays are 11-14 against the Yankees and Red Sox.

"There were some plays we normally make that we didn't make tonight," Maddon said. "Stuff happens. You can't be perfect every night. We'll just move on to tomorrow."

Honestly, the Rays have shown no signs of feeling the pressure. They are playing cards in the clubhouse. They are trash-talking about their fantasy football draft. They seem as carefree as they have been all season.

So the Red Sox crept within four games of the Rays on Tuesday night? Big deal. They were closer last week, and they could be closer still next week.

September, after all, is a long month.

For better or worse.

September arrives for Rays, as does the pressure 09/02/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 6, 2008 4:06pm]

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