ST. PETERSBURG — When the weekend began, amid all the bluster about finally getting back into the race for a spot in the playoffs, all the Rays really had was hope.
But after completing a stunning sweep of the Red Sox with a 9-1 win Sunday, they head into the final 2½ weeks of the season with something much more valuable: a chance.
"It's tangible," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's possible. It's there."
With the three wins, the Rays moved within 3½ games of the AL wild-card lead, the closest they've been since July 15, while improving to 81-64. They've gained 61/2 games on the wild card since Aug. 8. And with 17 games left — including four more in Boston this weekend — their confidence is swelling that they can extend their amazing run and catch the struggling Red Sox.
"Now we're back in the hunt, and they know we're right behind them," starter James Shields said. "I think we have a pretty good chance. Three-and-a-half back? … Anything can happen.
"Now we put the pressure on them. Now they have to win games. That's it. They could have swept us here and then cruise on to the end, and now they're not. We're going to keep grinding it out."
"It might be a little tough," centerfielder B.J. Upton said, "but I think we can do it."
The Red Sox have played into the Rays' plans by playing so badly, losing five straight and 10 of their past 13.
"It seems like everybody is in a funk at once," Boston DH David Ortiz said. "There's nobody to blame but everybody."
The Rays — three back in the loss column, and one win from clinching the season series, which would give them homefield advantage for a potential one-game playoff — took advantage. They rode a strong start from Wade Davis to take Friday's opener, then overcame themselves to rally and win in 11 innings Saturday. Sunday, against Boston ace Jon Lester no less, was pretty much no contest.
Shields pitched into the ninth — two outs shy of his 12th complete game with 121 pitches — by making the necessary adjustments to his out-of-synch mechanics in one shaky inning to post his career-best 15th win. "That's good," Shields said. "I've always wanted to get to the 15-win mark."
The recently warmed hitters scored three in Lester' 43-pitch mess of a first inning, sparked by Ben Zobrist's two-run single, then finished it off when Upton delivered a crushing grand slam that was the first of his career, and led to another new experience: a curtain call from the Tropicana Field crowd of 25,220.
"That felt pretty good, man," Upton said. "I never experienced anything like that, especially in this type of series. That definitely felt good."
The challenge ahead of the Rays is still daunting, as they still have 3½ games to make up and have the Angels just 1½ games behind them, and they will be battling the possibility of a letdown as well as the Orioles over the next three nights in Baltimore.
But they felt very good about themselves for their weekend work — "We needed to do what we just did," Maddon said — and the message it sent:
"That we can do this," Maddon said. "That the Rays can do this. We believe that we can — not just saying it — we believe that we can do this. All of us do. I think unless you firmly believe it, you can't go out and do what we just did for three consecutive days, knowing that they only needed pretty much one win to tank us. We didn't permit that to happen. I know that we believe it, and now I think other people are starting to believe it also."
The Red Sox, who will have a long off day to think about what happened, seem to have gotten the word.
"The last three days, they look like they got no pressure on themselves. That makes a huge difference," Ortiz said. "They should feel good. They whipped (us)."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]es.com.