DETROIT — The opportunity is there, and they realize it.
Having been unable to make up ground from afar in the American League wild-card race, the Rays headed home after Monday's 11-7 win knowing they have the Red Sox where they like them — in the visiting dugout at Tropicana Field — for the next three nights and must take advantage.
"Pretty crucial," James Shields said.
"All or nothing, almost," J.P. Howell said.
"It's big," Evan Longoria said. "I don't know if it gets any bigger."
Five games back — and with Texas in the middle — the Rays are at what appears a critical juncture: Sweep and creep within two games, split the series and the difference at four or six games back, get swept and drop eight back and all but out.
The best gauge of how big a chance this is might be how hard manager Joe Maddon and clubhouse conscience Carlos Peña were trying to spread the idea that they weren't looking at it that way.
"If anything," Peña said, "we're going to play it down so we can play up."
The Rays (71-59) have some reasons to feel good about themselves.
They rebounded well from Sunday's stinging defeat, scoring six runs to start Monday's game over the Tigers — the first team in six years to be up 6-0 six batters into a game — and getting a good-enough seven-inning start from Shields to hang on.
"That was a tough loss for us," Shields said, "and the way we came back (Monday) shows a lot of character with our team."
"Loved it," Maddon said.
The Rays didn't hit Detroit starter Jarrod Washburn all that hard, but they placed the ball well. A Jason Bartlett single, Gabe Kapler walk and doubles of varying degrees of difficulty by Ben Zobrist, Pat Burrell and Evan Longoria had them up 4-0 when Peña clubbed his AL-leading 38th homer to make it a six-pack. "An exclamation point," Maddon said.
Bartlett homered as part of another three-hit day that raised his average to .340, and Longoria, slowly feeling better at the plate, had three hits for the first time since late June.
They also finished what seemed like a tough road trip in which they gave away two games they looked to have won and traded away one of their top starting pitchers (Scott Kazmir) at 4-3, just the third time all season the souvenirs they brought home included a winning record.
"You've got to feel pretty good about that," Maddon said.
He said they also should feel good when they walk into the Trop tonight — even if the place may be (disappointingly) just over half-filled — based on their success there against the Red Sox: 5-1 this year, 14 of their past 16.
"I don't think they like coming to the Trop," Matt Garza said.
"It hasn't been real pleasant," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Cowbells that stay with you for about a week. We've certainly not had a lot of success. But we've got a day to gather our bullpen, get some rest. It'll be fun. It's a really exciting time of year to play good teams — play any team — but especially a team that they've had their way with us down there."
The Rays, frustrated watching the Red Sox keep winning, know what they have to do: "It's definitely going to prove a lot of things at the end of this series," Longoria said.
They just think their chances are better by not thinking about it.
"We're all human in here," Peña said, "but we have to transcend that human mind-set and start thinking differently for our own sake."