ST. PETERSBURG — Network hype aside, the reality of this weekend's Yankees-Red Sox series at Fenway Park is that they really aren't playing for much since both seem likely to make the playoffs.
It's up to the Rays — and/or the Angels — to make that not the case. And with 19 games left against the division- and wild-card leaders, the Rays can at least maintain the pretense of possibility by continuing what they've been doing.
Friday, for the third straight day, the Rays played the type of solid overall game necessary to make a run. And with an 8-4 victory over the A's, they put together their first three-game winning streak in more than a month.
"I think our players are really starting to believe again strongly," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "They're starting to see we're playing good baseball. We're winning close games. All of a sudden, we're scoring runs at the Trop. That's pretty big. We're winning games at home. That's pretty big."
Jeff Niemann was certainly a large part of Friday's testimony, coming just an out short of a complete game while throwing a career-high 119 pitches, extending his July hot streak into August while improving to 5-0, 2.26 in eight starts since coming off the disabled list in late June following a lower back strain.
"It's been a combination of things," Niemann said.
And so was the suddenly rejuvenated offense, B.J. Upton reaching base five times — and seven straight going back to Thursday — and support from top to almost bottom, making it 24 runs over their past three games. That's the first time they've scored seven or more in three straight games in more than a year and the first time at Tropicana Field since April 2010.
"Contributions coming from every direction," Maddon said.
Enough so that DH and clubhouse DJ Johnny Damon had a tough time deciding who would pull the cord to light the Captain Morgan sign by his locker that signals victory. (Upton allowed Niemann the unofficial player of the game honors.)
After a stretch in which they lost nine of 12, the Rays (59-52) have won six of their past eight and with another victory tonight or Sunday will claim their third consecutive series.
Granted, they've done so against the Mariners, Blue Jays and A's (who have lost 30 of their last 37 on the road). But it's a start. And for what it's worth, August has been the Rays' hottest month since their 2008 renaissance as they are a majors-best 56-32 over that span.
"Hopefully, we can keep doing what we're doing and try to chip our way back into this thing," Upton said.
The Rays wake up sitting nine games behind the Red Sox and 10 behind the Yankees in the AL East but determined to keep the big-picture goal in mind while aiming small for now, trying to gain one game a week. Maddon has been preaching that mantra, and Damon said he reinforced it in an up-till-now secret team meeting in Seattle last weekend.
"Whenever you look at the big picture, things seem more doable," Damon said.
"I think for a little while, we were trying to make up all those games in those amount of days. And obviously, that's not possible. We also have to worry about ourselves. We can't worry about what happens with Boston and New York when we're not playing them."
And when they do, starting next weekend in New York?
"Rock and roll," Maddon said. "We play them often enough, too, that we can make some noise with them, too."