BALTIMORE — Gathered around TVs in the Camden Yards clubhouse, the Rays were cheering and chirping as the Red Sox lost their Wednesday matinee. Five hours and a significantly wasted opportunity later, that confident chatter was replaced by the sound of silence and frustration.
A second straight how-could-this-happen loss to the last-place Orioles, this one 6-2, kept the Rays four games back in the wild-card race and sent them off to Boston, in their team letterman sweaters, needing to win at least three of the four games to have any realistic chance of staying in the postseason race.
"These next four games are pretty much going to tell us whether or not we're going to be playing in October," outfielder Matt Joyce said. "I think this is where you find out what you're made of, what your team is capable of."
A sweep would pull the Rays even with 10 games remaining. Winning three out of four would leave them two out. A split doesn't change anything. And anything less, they can start making their offseason plans.
"I don't know that it's absolutely necessary to sweep, but winning more than half would be good," manager Joe Maddon said. "Time is running out, I will not dispute that. But I just want us to stay in the present tense. As long as we stay in the present tense, we have our best chance of pulling this off."
Maddon's mantra will be for the Rays to look only at tonight's game, with rookie Jeremy Hellickson facing Sox fill-in Kyle Weiland. While Maddon refused to label it must-win, the alternative is to have to beat Josh Beckett and Jon Lester the next two games just to get to Sunday with a chance.
Their biggest concern has to be their suddenly anemic-again offense. The Rays managed just four runs and 10 hits and struck out 21 times in the two losses, shut down Tuesday by Alfredo Simon and Wednesday by 17-game loser Jeremy Guthrie.
"We're just not hitting the ball again," Maddon said. "That's typical of what's happened to us this year where we played good baseball but our offense kinda goes away. And we just can't have that happen right now. … We can't permit that to happen anymore. It's just happened way too often this year."
The Rays scored their runs on a two-out double by Joyce in the fourth but couldn't do anything else. They got two on to start the seventh, but Casey Kotchman went down swinging, John Jaso flied out and Reid Brignac looked at strike three. And when B.J. Upton walked with one out in the eighth, Evan Longoria swung at the first pitch from Jim Johnson and grounded into a double play.
"It's not the good at-bat we were working before we got up here, I'll admit that," Maddon said. "I don't know if it's a product of their pitchers being so good or if we're trying a little too hard. It's hard to say. But I have full faith in our guys. We'll be fine by (tonight)."
"It's been off and on," Joyce said. "So maybe after these two days being off it will come back on."
Compounding the lack of offense was an unimpressive performance by starter Wade Davis. After the Rays gave him the 2-1 lead in the fourth, he gave it right back, allowing hits to Vlad Guerrerro and Matt Wieters then a three-run homer on a misplaced 0-and-2 fastball to Chris Davis.
The Rays are 4-1 at Fenway this season, and 39-29 over the past four, so they will take some confidence with them for what Maddon anticipates being raucous playoff atmosphere.
"We definitely missed an opportunity, no question. But that doesn't mean it's over and that doesn't mean you quit," he said. "Stay tuned, we ain't going away."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Sunday free?
BALTIMORE — The Rays' 2012 schedule includes a season-opening series at home vs. the Yankees, interleague visits by the Braves and Mets and five extended three-city road trips.
But what's most interesting is what it does not have: A game on Sunday, Aug. 26.
To accommodate a Republican National Convention event at Tropicana Field, the Rays will make the unusual move of having a Sunday off. They will host Oakland on Thursday-Saturday, then leave on Monday for a seven-game trip to Texas and Toronto.
The Rays will open at home against the Yankees — for the second time — with a 3:10 start. They make interleague visits to the Marlins, Nationals and Phillies and host the Braves, Marlins and Mets, who make their first visit since 2001.
Most home games will start at 7:10; the 6:40 weekday times are gone.
For the full schedule, go to rays.tampbay.com