ST. PETERSBURG — They came back from the brink, if not further, nine games out of a playoff spot three days into September. Now for the Rays, it has come to this: one game back of the Red Sox with three to play.
"It's been real for us," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "Our goal is to play in the playoffs, and it's going to get a lot more real here in the next three days. So I think everyone in here is looking forward to it. And everyone in here believes."
The Rays got there by winning again Sunday, 5-2 over the Blue Jays, getting a strong start from Wade Davis and four home runs, as the Red Sox rallied in the 14th inning for a split of their doubleheader in New York.
Now the Rays host the Yankees for the three games, while the Red Sox go to Baltimore.
The Rays need to win one more game than the Red Sox in order to force a tie, and a one-game playoff that would be at Tropicana Field on Thursday, with the winner flying to Texas or Detroit to open the playoffs. Win two more than the Sox, the Rays can go straight there.
"It's crazy," Ben Zobrist said. "At the beginning of the month we knew that one of them, either the Yankees or the Red Sox, were going to have to give us an opening and we were going to have to keep playing well. And that's just what's happened right now. So we're very fortunate to be in the position we're at. If we keep winning and putting the pressure on, we're excited about what could happen."
The Sox have made it possible, losing 16 of 21. The Rays have not exactly taken full advantage of their historic collapse but are 14-8 since, winning the last two over Toronto when they absolutely, positively had to.
The Rays are set up well, with their top three starters — James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson and David Price — lined up and rookie sensation Matt Moore available in relief.
They haven't done well against Yankees this season, losing nine of 15, including three of four last week, and being shut out three times. They're hoping to play better, of course, but also that the Yankees, more concerned with Friday's playoff opener having already clinched the AL East and homefield advantage through two rounds, don't play as well, or as hard.
"Hopefully they're not going to think too much about us,'' Zobrist said, "they're going to think more about Friday than the next three days.''
As Saturday, the Rays needed to win Sunday to make these three games matter as much.
Manager Joe Maddon had an interesting indicator before the game, knowing the Sox were already down in their opener, that his Rays would be on task: The look in their eyes as they went through their assorted pregame handshake rituals and other dugout high jinks.
"You can just see or feel the focus and the intensity," Maddon said. "It's really obvious they were ready to play today."
Davis was oblivious to all that warming up in the bullpen but showed his readiness with a crisp 12-pitch 1-2-3 first inning. Then his teammates did their part, with B.J. Upton and Zobrist (inside the park) homering to provide a 2-0 first-inning lead before a crowd of 21,008 that cheered each scoring update from New York.
Davis treaded dangerously in the second, allowing a run, and the third, when he got Jose Bautista to ground out with the tying run on, then got all the room he needed to work when Longoria hit a two-run homer in the third and finished with a solid eight-inning outing. Kelly Shoppach added a homer in the sixth.
"(Davis) was impressive," Longoria said. "Just what we needed."
The Rays know what they have to do — keep pitching well, score enough and win.
"The goal is to go out there and win the next three games and put the pressure on them and make them win also," Longoria said. "So it's going to be a fun three days."
And as for their chances of pulling this off, the first team to make the postseason from nine games out in September?
"I like 'em," Upton said. "I like 'em a lot."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.