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Tampa Bay Rays begin critical stretch tonight

TORONTO — They keep talking about winning another division title as if they are going to, casting aside the potential of a wild-card berth and ignoring the realistic possibility they won't return to the postseason at all.

Finally heading home after a 5-1 loss Sunday that wrapped up their second-half starting road trip at a good-but-not great 6-4, the Rays are at a juncture that could determine where they eventually head.

Three games against the AL East-leading Yankees starting tonight at less-than sold-out Tropicana Field, then after getting past Friday's deadline for nonwaiver trades and a four-day encounter with the lowly Royals, two games next week with the second-place Red Sox.

"It's huge," said James Shields, who pitches tonight's opener.

"A crucial homestand, to be honest, for us," DH Pat Burrell said. "I think it will dictate a lot, especially with the deadline coming up."

Manager Joe Maddon, who hates to put more emphasis on any one game or series, insists it's too early to be talking about a "make-or-break kind of a thing."

But around the clubhouse after Sunday's flat effort, with Jays lefty Brett Cecil outpitching Jeff Niemann in a battle of rookies, the players realize the opportunity they now have.

"The task is going to be presented to us, and it will be about how we respond," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "If we can win two out of three from the Yankees and, hopefully, take the two that we play against the Red Sox, we're going to be looking pretty good in the standings."

Here's how it looks right now: The Rays are 54-45, 6½ games behind the Yankees and — whether they want to hear it or not — four behind the wild-card leading Red Sox.

"I think this is one of those homestands that could set the tone for the rest of the season," Shields said.

"It's a big stretch," Longoria said. "And I think everyone in the clubhouse understands that's it's pretty important."

Their first concern is the Yankees, against whom they are 4-4. Sweep, and the Rays are within 3½ games. Take two of three, and they're 5½ back. Get swept, they're 9½ out and maybe done.

"We definitely have got to win the series to gain some ground," centerfielder B.J. Upton said.

"We can't seem to catch any ground on them, so this will be the best way, to play them head up and hope we can gain some ground that way," leftfielder Carl Crawford said. "If we plan on being in it, we kind of have to win these games. But we play them a lot the rest of the year."

Of the Rays' 63 remaining games, 35 are against teams better than .500, including seven more after this homestand with the Yankees and six with the Red Sox.

Thirty-six of the 63 are at home, where their 30-15 record is third best in the league.

Maddon likes the way they have been playing with a sense of purpose, pointing to how they rallied late for all six wins, Saturday's franchise-record comeback from eight down, even their bounce-back from Thursday's perfect game.

"We've been pushing," he said. "We played better on this road trip. We won a lot of close games. We lost a couple of close ones. A lot of stuff happened in 10 days on this trip. We've got to keep pushing it. There's no two ways about it.

"Our guys are getting it. I think we've done that. We've just got to keep it rolling."

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

Long, strange trip

During the 6-4 road trip that ended Sunday, the Rays:

• Were gone a season-high 10 nights to three cities. The 12 members who first went to the All-Star Game in St. Louis were gone 14 nights. "Felt like a month," said Carl Crawford, the game's MVP who joined Evan Longoria and David Price at the ESPYs in L.A.

• Were the victims of the 18th perfect game in major-league history, by Mark Buehrle on Thursday in Chicago.

• Staged the biggest comeback in team history, rallying from 8-0 and 9-1 deficits Saturday in Toronto to win 10-9 in 12 innings.

• Rallied in the eighth inning to win three games and, for the first time this season, in the ninth for another.

• Won consecutive games in extra innings.

• Saw Crawford log his third career inside-the-park homer.

• Had eight of the games decided by one (six) or two (two) runs.

Tampa Bay Rays begin critical stretch tonight 07/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 9:50am]
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