Now the Yankees, led by super-cool captain Derek Jeter, will try to convince everyone that they are not in panic mode after dropping the first two games of a series against the Rays and coughing up what was once a 10-game lead in the American League East. It's hard, of course, to suggest that a team that has made the postseason 15 of the past 16 years doesn't have the stomach for this pennant-chasing business.
If anything, you wonder if the Yankees are a little too relaxed, a little too laid back. Maybe a little panic, a little urgency, might do them some good. Maybe they need to be a little more like the Rays.
So here we are. Nearly a month left. A big series in New York next week. The surprising Orioles right in the mix. And the possibility that neither the Rays nor Yankees will make the playoffs. But as the two get together tonight for the final time at Tropicana Field this regular season, I like the Rays' chances a tad better than the Yankees' based on what we've seen the past two nights. Here are some reasons why:
The Rays are treating these games like big games
And you get the feeling that the Yankees are not. There's something to be said for not getting too high or too low (a trait that has always served Joe Maddon's Rays well), but there also is something to be said for embracing the moment.
"I love the energy of these games," Maddon said after the Rays' 5-2 victory Tuesday. "Our players really thrive on the energy."
The Rays came into this series not afraid to admit that it was a big series, that it was more than just three games in a 162-game marathon.
"We know what's at stake," first baseman Carlos Peña said.
The Rays might be the better team
At the moment, that is. The Yankees were really good for one month this season. That was June when they went 20-7. Since then, they are a .500 team (29-29), and just 19-25 since July 19. The Rays, meantime, are 22-11 since July 31. Last year, the Rays needed the Red Sox to have an epic collapse to reach the playoffs. The Rays don't need any collapses this season.
The Rays' pitching is just too good
Line up the Yankees and Rays position by position and, arguably, other than a healthy Evan Longoria over Alex Rodriguez, there probably isn't one Rays player you would take over a Yankees regular. But that hardly matters when you can pitch like Tampa Bay. History suggests that the Rays' pitching not only will get Tampa Bay to the postseason but get it into the World Series.
The last five American League teams to finish a season with an ERA as low as the Rays have (3.26 going into Tuesday's game) all advanced to the World Series. Pitching makes up for a lot of weaknesses.
"We are who we are," Maddon said. "We have to play a complete game. We have to play our matchups. We have to platoon when necessary. We have to play with energy. We have to do the little things right all the time."
The Rays are used to this stuff
You know, for as often as the Yankees have been in the postseason, it's surprising how few big September games the Yankees have played in recent seasons. Last year, they won the AL East by six games. That was also the margin for winning the wild card in both 2010 and 2007. They won the division by eight games in 2009 and 10 games in 2006. Heck, in 2010, they were so in control that they LET the Rays win the division. Remember that?
Where are the white-knuckle rides and nail-biting finishes?
And now, the Yankees are in surreal territory: They have never — repeat, NEVER — missed the postseason after having a 10-game lead.
Meantime, it seems like the Rays are always playing those end-of-the-plank games, none more so than Game 162 last year.
"I'd like to believe what we learned last year was to never quit," Maddon said. "We were given up for dead. I kind of like that our guys are not affected by the moment."
Ben Zobrist already is planning on the season coming down the last day.
"It doesn't matter what happened yesterday," Zobrist said. "It only matters what happens today. Every game, each day, matters."
The way things are going, the last game will matter to the Rays … and not the Yankees.
tom jones' two cents