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September will challenge inexperienced Rays

ST. PETERSBURG — The games are going to be more intense. Emotions higher. Media coverage magnified. Scrutiny increased. Distractions greater. Crowds louder and larger. Scoreboards more tempting. Stakes raised.

And the key for the Rays is not to notice any of it.

"I've said it a hundred times, but I just want us to keep playing the same game," manager Joe Maddon said. "I want them to think it's just like when they're playing so-and-so in July and use the same approach."

But the Rays are going where many of them have never been before: the pressures and pitfalls of a September pennant race.

And they don't really know how it's going to turn out. The first five months of the season, the five-game division lead, the "magic number" to clinch a playoff spot of 19, it's all pending what happens next, starting tonight at Tropicana Field with a rugged stretch of 19 consecutive games against the Yankees, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Twins.

"It is different, because it's a pennant race, it's the last month of the season, and the games are very important," said outfielder Eric Hinske, one of a half-dozen Rays who can speak from experience. "You've just got to find a way to keep doing what you've been doing the first five months, try not to think about what's at stake and just worry about your game that day."

The task can be daunting for any team, and even more so for players who are young and are heading for their first such experience. Players and coaches who have been through it straddle a fine line between making sure they understand the significance of each day yet not making too much of it.

"You can't allow yourself to get ahead of yourself," said Cliff Floyd, another veteran, "because if you do, you start putting pressure on yourself, and I'll tell you, it will crush you before you know it."

There is a legitimate concern — or as pitching coach Jim Hickey, with five starters younger than 27 and none with meaningful September innings, prefers, a "curiosity" — about how the young players will respond to the pressures.

One theory is to make sure they don't try to do anything different.

"It might be a little harder with a younger team," Hinske said. "Your first time through it, we'll see. I don't know how they're going to handle it right now, but I'm trying to do as much as I can to make them realize the importance of it."

Another is just to let them play.

"They've got talent," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "You take age and I'll take talent and I'll beat your a--."

Both concepts are valid. Players from young teams in previous races said the keep-it-the-same approach worked for them. And it helps to have some fun along the way.

"You just go out and play," Cleveland's Ryan Garko said. "Try to keep the same routine each night. Pressure is what you make of it. We would just try to go out and focus on the opponent that night. We had some big series against the Tigers late, and there was definitely a different atmosphere in the ballpark. You just try to feed off of it."

But it's something that's easier for veterans to do, too.

"I think the guys that have been through it understand it's another ball game," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "The focus has to be the same. You can't try to become Superman in games that are perceived to carry more significance."

Plus, the Rays feel as if they've already been tested in several key series and in how they responded to their seven-game losing streak by posting a majors-best 29-12 record since.

"Nothing has fazed this entire team yet this year, so I don't see because it's the last month of the season anything changing," veteran Troy Percival said. "I don't think anybody can doubt the way this team handles pressure. The entire country has been waiting for us to fall all year — you read it all the time, this is the road trip, this is the homestand, this is the time — so we've been playing under that atmosphere all year."

But now it's September.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

September will challenge inexperienced Rays 09/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2008 4:36pm]
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