CHICAGO — The Rays played hard and did a lot right to win the first two games of the division series and put themselves in this promising position.
Now they just have to avoid the wet spot.
The forecast for this afternoon's Game 3 is for temperatures in the mid 60s with a 60 percent chance of showers, but even if it doesn't rain, the Rays expect certain areas of the U.S. Cellular Field basepaths to be somewhere between damp and drenched.
"I'm really anticipating a very moist field in spite of the natural weather conditions," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Just watch in the first inning as soon as we get somebody out there; you'll notice."
The theory is simple, and the tradition in baseball long-standing: One way to slow a fast team such as the Rays is to make the infield a slower track to run on, primarily by overwatering and using softer dirt ("like a sandbox," Maddon said) in key spots, such as in front of the plate and around first base.
And the Sox's head groundskeeper, Roger Bossard, has long been known as one of the best at such tactics.
"It's been that way for ages here," said Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, a Chicago native. "It's been well-documented what they do, and how they configure the field to their advantage. … It would not surprise me at all to see that (today). In fact, I'd probably be surprised if I didn't see something out of the ordinary."
The expected wet track, and the thicker pizza, aren't the only differences the Rays will encounter in the Windy City as they seek to blow out the Sox and advance to the AL Championship Series against the Angels or Red Sox.
• The Sox were 54-38 at the Cell, the AL's third-best home record behind the Rays and Red Sox, primarily because they hit a major-league-most 143 homers at home — more than eight big-league teams had overall, and 37 fewer than Tampa Bay's total. (Their power, however, may be negated by the calendar, as even Sox manager Ozzie Guillen acknowledged the ball doesn't fly out nearly as much in the fall as it does in the summer.)
• The grass is likely to be cut higher to make the infield slower, under the theory that the Sox don't hit a lot of ground balls but it could stop balls the Rays hit from getting through holes. (But that could also benefit Rays starter Matt Garza, whose sinking fastball produces a lot of ground balls.)
• There will be a chill in the air — leading equipment manager Chris Westmoreland to break out the new "Elmer Fudd" caps with ear flaps for Saturday's workout — as temperatures will drop into the 50s in the evening and 40s overnight.
• The shadows will be significant, cutting across the infield, due to the 3:07 local start time. The Sox could even have an advantage there as they scheduled their Saturday workout for — what a coincidence — 3 p.m., forcing the Rays to hold theirs earlier.
Guillen joked that he'd tell Bossard to "have a swimming pool at first base," then said straight-faced there was nothing in the works. But the Twins, who like the Rays are a speed team, complained about the conditions during their last visit, and the Rays will be monitoring, with the prerogative of bringing it to the attention of the umpires.
"I'm sure there is a tipping point where it becomes too egregious … (like) if there's islands," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Obviously it's a fine line and the umpires can make a determination if it's gone too far. But I don't begrudge anyone trying to make a homefield advantage even more so than currently exists."
The Rays know what to expect but haven't exactly dampened their expectations. "They do make it a little bit moist out there for us, but I don't think it will be a factor," B.J. Upton said.
"I don't know what they are going to try to do," Cliff Floyd said, "but there isn't going to be enough water in Chicago to slow these guys down, I can tell you that."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]