The Rays face a treacherous task in trying to get back to the playoffs — or at least back into the race to have a chance to get back — but not an impossible one. Nor unprecedented. The other side of the colorful pennant race collapses that dot baseball history are the teams that made the runs, and several have closed gaps similar to the one facing the Rays. And for expert testimony, the Rays have only to listen to senior adviser Don Zimmer and manager Joe Maddon, who were on the wrong side of two of the most memorable rundowns.
Zimmer managed the 1978 Red Sox, who had a 14-game lead in mid July, held an 8½-game edge over the Yankees on Aug. 20 and ended up losing a one-game playoff for the playoffs to New York that gave Bucky Dent a middle name.
Thirty-three years later, Zimmer still growls at the memories. "Our team could hit as good as any of them, and we just stopped hitting. Dead cold," Zimmer said. "But how in the hell can you say we choked when you win 99 games? I hate that word."
The Rays are in a different situation, Zimmer said, because they are chasing two teams (but also for two spots). Also, because the Rays' strength is pitching — "the best five starters in the American League," he said — rather than offense.
"It's tough," Zimmer said. "It's tough. Impossible? It's not impossible. Things can happen. It would be a lot easier if you had one team ahead of you, but you've got both at about the same distance. We could win seven games in a row and not gain on either of them.
"But what makes it possible is that we've got so many games left (seven each) with the two of them."
Maddon was the first-base coach for the 1995 Angels, who led the AL West by 11 games on Aug. 9 and 12½ on Aug. 20, and also ended up losing in a playoff, to Seattle.
He says two things changed the complexion of the race: the Angels losing SS Gary Disarcina to injury (and making an unimpactful addition of INF Jose Lind), and the Mariners getting a boost with the acquisition of OF Vince Coleman.
That taught him the value of the cliched thinking of taking care of your own business, and it could apply to the Rays, with the Red Sox and Yankees having injury issues. "Maybe something happens on the other side that can disrupt their rhythm," Maddon said.
Ideally, Maddon said, he'd like to at least be within four or five games of one of the teams by September's start. But with seven of their last 10 games against the Yankees (and New York's other three vs. Boston), he knows it could come down to a wild finish.
"At the beginning of the season, the schedule that looked really not very desirable at the end, for very convoluted reasons, may actually turn out in our favor," Maddon said.
A look at the remaining head-to-head games:
7 Rays-Yankees: 4 at New York, Sept. 20-22; 3 at Tampa Bay, Sept. 26-28
7 Rays-Red Sox: 3 at Tampa Bay, Sept. 9-11; 4 at Boston, Sept. 15-18
6 Yankees-Sox: 3 at Boston, Aug. 30-Sept. 1; 3 at New York, Sept. 23-25
A secret, "detailed plan," huh? Sounds like St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has the stadium issue under control. … Andrew Friedman's name — which has come up repeatedly in Houston for the GM job (and will again, especially if his father were to get back involved in potential ownership) — is being mentioned in Chicago after the Cubs' firing of Dunedin's Jim Hendry. … DH Hideki Matsui is the latest hot name in the waiver trade rumor mill, but the Rays aren't likely to make any additions, or subtractions. … ESPN.com's Eric Karabell has RHP Jeremy Hellickson second in the AL rookie of the year race, behind Seattle's Michael Pineda. … The Rays becoming the first AL team to allows three hits or fewer in three consecutive games since the 1992 Orioles had a familiar look to PR man Rick Vaughn, who was with the O's then. … Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy wonders why struggling ex-Ray Carl Crawford has gotten such a long "free pass" and writes: "Boston is supposed to be a tough town for professional athletes. Not for Crawford. He is one lucky hombre." … As part of his 60th wedding anniversary celebration last week, Don Zimmer got 30 $2 bills from his daughter.
Got a minute? John Jaso
Must-see TV? Survivorman. And the one with the two guys — one guy is like a Green Beret, and another guy is like a nature dude? I got into that one for a while. And there's Man vs. Wild.
Big-night-out meal? I like tapas.
Band you'd like to be on stage with? Oh man, that's, wow — Led Zeppelin.
Worst job? Selling shoes at a sports store. That was pretty bad. But everybody should retail at some point in their life, though. You know what I mean?
Dream date? Hmm … How about the Esurance girl? The one from the cartoon, not the one in the white room (in the Progressive commercials).
Eight teams that made impressive late-season runs to the postseason:
|1938 Cubs||Pirates by 9 on Aug. 20||30-12||NL by 2|
|1942 Cardinals||Dodgers by 7½ on Aug. 23||29-5||NL by 2|
|1951 Giants||Dodgers by 13 on Aug. 11||37-7||NL in best-of-3 playoff|
|1969 Mets||Cubs by 9 on Aug. 16||36-11||Division by 8|
|1978 Yankees||Red Sox by 8½ on Aug. 20||30-10||Division in 1-game playoff|
|1993 Braves||Giants by 7½ on Aug. 22||28-9||Division by 1|
|1995 Mariners||Angels by 12½ on Aug. 20||25-13||Division in 1-game playoff|
|2007 Phillies||Mets by 7 on Sept. 12||13-4||Division by 1|