ST. PETERSBURG — For the Rays to actually make it to the playoffs at this point would take feats — a run by them and a collapse by the Red Sox — of near historic proportions.
But before the Rays can even get to that part, they have to get close. And that's the opportunity in front of them this weekend, essentially a last-gasp chance to whittle the Red Sox's 6½-game lead by taking two of three or, to make it more realistic, get a sweep.
"From here on out we have to win every single game," Sunday's starter James Shields said. "It's just do-or-die right now for us."
If they do do and sliced the margin to 3½ games by Sunday, from there their theory is the Red Sox might start feeling their presence.
"We could still make it really interesting," said Wade Davis, who starts tonight. "It could still be an interesting ending here if we could put some pressure on them and win all these games."
"It's a psychological warfare right now as much as anything," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "There's actual numbers involved, but it's the psychology of the whole thing. I've talked about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where they're running away from these guys and they just can't get away. Who are those guys chasing us? Who are those guys? I want to be, 'Who are those guys.' "
And if the Rays were to narrow the gap, with four more head-to-head games next weekend in Boston among their remaining 20, the Sox could also start to feel the weight of their fatalistic-by-nature nation.
"Let their fans sweat a little bit, it's all for good baseball," said Rays DH Johnny Damon, a former Red Sox star. "There shouldn't be as much pressure on us, definitely a lot more on them. Players do know how it feels to play under a lot of pressure; that fastball down the middle seems a little tougher to hit, executing that pitch is a little tougher to do."
The Rays lead the season series 6-5, and the key has been their pitching. In the 11 games, the Rays have held Boston batters to a .168 average and 3.79 runs per game. In the Sox's other 131 games heading into Thursday, they've hit .289 averaged 5.62 runs. Since June 30, 2008, the Rays hold a 33-23 edge, plus 4-3 in the 2008 ALCS.
"We go into (tonight's) game with full confidence against them," Shields said. "They know we're a challenge to them. We've done pretty well over the last couple years against them. We face them a lot, there's no reason why we can't beat them. As long as we play our game, pitch as well as we have been and get some hitting going, I think we're going to be fine."
Sox manager Terry Francona said Thursday that he "expected" the Rays to still be in contention despite all their changes and "it would have been a surprise if it were the other way."
And while he wouldn't place any more importance on this series, it was notable the Red Sox rested first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and leftfielder Carl Crawford on Thursday against Toronto.
If the Rays are going to make it at least interesting, it has to start this weekend.
"That's what our job is right now, to let them know we're still not going away," Shields said. "I think they know this next series is a big series for them as well, so it should be an interesting series and a fun one."