Tampa Bay Rays start 17-game grind to gain ground on spot in the postseason

DETROIT — Their latest theme song blared, as programmed, 30 minutes after Wednesday's crushing defeat, but the Rays hardly seemed to notice as they staggered out of Toronto heading for an undoubtedly long off day in their new outpost of Birmingham, Mich.

Besides, it would be more fitting intro music when they reassemble this afternoon at Comerica Park, opening a treacherous stretch that more than any other is likely to define their season: 17 games in 17 days against three teams currently holding post­season spots — the Tigers, Red Sox and Yankees.

"It's definitely the ring of fire," centerfielder B.J. Upton said.

Making it more challenging, 11 of the games are on the road, where the Rays have struggled, including a Labor Day-Night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, and only one day off in the next 24.

"It's not going to be easy from here on out," leftfielder Carl Crawford said. "This will show how much we want it, if we go out and play well against those teams.

"I was talking to one of our coaches and they said these next few weeks are going to really tell the story, so we'll have to see how it goes."

With a 69-57 record, a four-game deficit behind the AL wild-card-leading Red Sox and only 36 games left, the Rays have put themselves in a difficult position.

"We just have to win," said pitcher Matt Garza, who starts tonight. "No ifs, ands, buts about it. We have to win. Everybody knows it. We know it. They know it. We have to win."

Here are a few things to watch as they try:

Do the math

With the East Division-leading Yankees out of reach, the Rays' sights are set on catching the Red Sox for the wild card. The Rays need to go 21-15 to get to 90 wins, but that may not be enough. What will it take to surpass the Sox?

Consider these equations:

If the Sox play just .500 and go 18-18, the Rays have to go 23-13.

If the Sox stay on their current pace and go 21-15, the Rays have to go 26-10.

To put it another way, if the Rays maintain their current pace, they would finish 89-73, and they would have to hope the Sox do no better than 15-21.

Timing

There isn't any ideal time to play this many games in a row against tough opponents. But the Rays say this is as good a time as any, as they feel, with eight wins in their past 11 games, they are playing better.

"I think we're ready for it," closer J.P. Howell said. "I think it's good timing for it. I think it's better than earlier when we were kind of trying to work some things out."

Their starters have been more consistent, and Carlos Peña, Pat Burrell and Ben Zobrist have been hot. Evan Longoria and Howell, not so much.

"We feel confident about how we match up with the better teams in the league, especially with how well our starting pitchers are performing.,'' executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.

Head to head

The six games against the Red Sox — three at the Trop next week, three at Fenway in mid September — provide the best opportunity for the Rays to make up ground.

"We're playing the people we need to beat, and we need to get beat," Garza said. "So it's kind of on our side."

Due to a quirk of the schedule, they are playing the Tigers for the first time this season. (Last season, the Rays were 4-3 vs. Detroit.)

As for the other two:

Rays vs. Red Sox — Rays are 5-1 at home, 3-3 on road.

Rays vs. Yankees — Rays are 2-4 at home, 3-2 on road.

Personnel

Healthwise, the biggest concern is Crawford, their All-Star leftfielder who has been out since Monday with a stiff back. Rosters can be expanded starting Tuesday, and the Rays are expected to add several players. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura could be of the most help (though they have to determine how often, and how well, he can play coming off left knee surgery), and outfielder Fernando Perez will be a useful addition, mostly as a pinch-runner. They will also add some pitching depth and a third catcher.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com

FAST FACTS

The task ahead

Tonight-Monday: 4 games at Tigers

Tues.-Thurs: 3 vs. Red Sox

Sept. 4-6: 3 vs. Tigers

Sept. 7-9: 4 at Yankees

Sept. 11-13: 3 at Red Sox

Tampa Bay Rays start 17-game grind to gain ground on spot in the postseason 08/27/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 27, 2009 11:42pm]

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