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Tampa Bay Rays aim to win AL East with 35 games left in season

ARLINGTON, Texas

The calendar still says August for a few more days, but the races say September.

With 35 games to play, the Rays find themselves positioned well to make a run — for the fourth time in five seasons — at a spot in the playoffs.

The American League East title is their prime prize, and they'll have to run down the Yankees to get it. "We want to hang another banner," manager Joe Maddon says, over and over for any doubters.

And though it's easy for the Rays to say now they don't pay attention to the wild-card standings, that may shift quickly as they get into September.

Here's a look at where they are, and their prospects of getting where they want to go:

Can they beat out the Yankees and win the AL East?

Ask around the clubhouse, and there isn't much doubt.

"Absolutely," ace David Price said. "I know we're all very confident in this locker room right now. We've been playing pretty good baseball for the last however many weeks. We feel like we can catch them."

The Rays would seem to have the momentum, having gone 23-12 since July 19 to move from 10½ games out to four while the Yankees are 17-19 in the same stretch. And the Rays are actually the healthier team, especially pitching-wise.

The four-game margin with 35 to play isn't much, especially in the context of last season when the Rays were nine games out of a playoff spot on Sept. 3 and got in.

Having six games — three next week at the Trop, three in New York from Sept. 14-16 (for the road-trippers, that's the same weekend the Bucs play at the Giants) — with the Yankees is important, though there still will be 2½ weeks left when they're done.

The Yankees have a decidedly easier finishing schedule, playing their last 10 games against the non-contending Blue Jays, Twins and Red Sox. The Rays play their last seven against the White Sox and Orioles.

"Our main goal right now is to win the division," starter Jeremy Hellickson said. "And that's what we're going to try to do."

Isn't a wild card a safer bet?

Kind of.

Obviously the bottom line is piling up enough wins.

But while chasing the Yankees is a straightforward pursuit, the wild-card competition is a bit convoluted, with five teams bidding for two spots. And much less rewarding, as under the new system the two wild cards are guaranteed only one game, with the loser out.

Though the Rays are leading the wild-card field, it's not much of a margin with the Orioles, A's and Tigers all within one game. And the Angels are still looming. (Plus the White Sox and/or Rangers could sub into the field if they lose their division leads.)

Because the field is so large, it's much harder to control your own destiny. And because it's so crowded, it's difficult to gain ground or separation.

The team to be most concerned about? The Tigers, who play only 13 of their remaining 35 games against contenders, with 22 against the Indians, Twins and Royals, including their last 13.

The Rays play 22 of their last 35 against contenders. The Orioles have 20; the Angels, 22; and the A's, 23, including a stretch of 17 straight vs. the Angels, O's, Tigers, Yankees and Rangers. (The White Sox have 18, the Rangers 19.)

What's the Rays' best asset?

As much talk as there is about the on-again, off-again offense, the absolute key to their success is going to be what they do on their mound.

And, thus far, they've made quite a pitch, leading the league in ERA (3.26), opponents average (.232) and strikeouts (1,055) and being second in shutouts (13).

They were supposed to be good, but this good?

"This is a little bit above and beyond right now," said Maddon, top right. "I thought they'd be really good, but what we're doing more recently I guess it's almost like record-setting historic."

The bullpen has been blazing, with Fernando Rodney, middle right, the leader and Joel Peralta, Jake McGee and J.P. Howell heading the supporting cast.

And turns through the rotation have become a blur for opponents, as each Rays starter tries to match, or outdo, the others. Price, James Shields, bottom right, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb are all seemingly at their best, with only Hellickson inconsistent.

Can they keep it up?

"I would say so," Price said. "As of right now we're in first in just about every pitching category you can be first in — all the good ones at least. So I think we've definitely lived up to (the hype). We started a little slower than we wanted, but everybody's picked it up."

What could go wrong?

Well, seeing Evan Longoria grab his left hamstring would be pretty high on the list.

Though Longoria hasn't done that much in the 17 games he has played since coming off the disabled list Aug. 7 — hitting .242 with two homers and 10 RBIs — his return has made a major difference.

During the 85 games he was out, the Rays went 41-44, hit .223 and averaged 3.86 runs a game. Since he has been back, they are 14-5 and are hitting .272 and averaging 5.32 runs.

Obviously an injury to any key player at this point would be a big blow, the Rays having — finally — accrued enough depth to cover most spots.

The exception — and thus as big a concern as Longoria — would be Rodney.

Rodney has been as close to automatic as there is, converting 39 of 41 saves, with a 0.72 ERA (that's three — THREE — earned runs in 371/3 innings) in save situations. Though Joel Peralta has two saves, and Kyle Farnsworth is looking more like the guy who had 25 last year, there is nowhere near the comfort factor, nor confidence, as they have with Rodney.



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

First pitch

Rays pitchers are best in the AL in all these categories:

Stat Total

ERA 3.26

S/ERA 3.45

R/ERA 2.85

SO 1,055

H 992

HR 111 (tie)

BAA .232

OBP .299

SLG .361

SV% 85 pct.

QS 72 (tie)

S/ERA = starters' ERA; R/ERA = relievers' ERA; BAA = batting average against; QS = quality starts



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

Tampa Bay Rays aim to win AL East with 35 games left in season 08/26/12 [Last modified: Sunday, August 26, 2012 10:49pm]

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