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Tampa Bay Rays will be remembered for what they do in final week

Darn the Rays.

They made you care.

They have made you angry, and they have made you swear, and they have left you grumpy. Your hands are shaking, and your blood pressure is up and you feel as if it were you, not just them, that has been mugged in New York. They have made you grind your teeth, and they have kept you up nights, and they have driven you so crazy that the next pitch you see may send your remote control flying toward the screen.

Now, it is time for them to win.

Otherwise, no one in Tampa Bay may fully recover.

This is no time for reflection. Yeah, yeah, the Rays did a fine job getting themselves back into contention, and they never said die. We have covered that. Blah, blah, they have made the season interesting, and they are no longer lost. Later, when things are calmer and there are no more eighth innings to suffer, we will appreciate it again. Put me down for a high-five in, say, November.

Now, it is time for a hero.

After all, no one is going to remember a near-historic journey unless it ends with a footprint on the moon.

Yes, this is a lot to ask. There are six games to go, and despite losing three of four in New York, the Rays still have a pulse. After finally stopping the bleeding in Thursday night's 15-8 victory over the Yankees, the Rays are two games behind in the AL wild-card standings as Toronto comes to town. This is no time for silliness. Or, for that matter, J.P. Howell.

That said, you can't help but think about how much better off the Rays would be if they could have gotten one more win in New York. Maybe two. That's what a pennant race is. These days, even winning comes with frustration.

All of this noise is terrific, of course. It is the sound of baseball that counts, of teams that matter, of a season that is headed toward an exciting ending. It is great that, as a community, we have roughly 4 million people who are, at this exact minute, wondering what the hell Joe Maddon was thinking.

In other words, Tampa Bay is at full frenzy. This is the Rays' first pennant race from behind (in 2008 and 2010, they were fighting for the East Division lead, but they weren't in real danger of missing the playoffs in September). The pressure is building, and fans who declared the season dead long ago are back, and every stranded runner brings locals closer to a room with rubber walls.

The local fans, reawakened and reinvigorated, want this postseason. They don't want to talk about a nice pennant race; they want to win it. They don't want to talk about a nice run; they want to race past Boston.

Fair or not, this season will be remembered largely for the week to come. Ask yourself: If the Rays finish shy of the postseason, will you remember a resilient team that performed beyond its expectations, beyond its flaws, beyond its budget? Or will you remember it for not seizing an opportunity? Will you remember coming back or falling short?

Better yet, will you remember it as an unlikely playoff team?

The truth of it is the odds have been against the Rays all along, and the odds are against them now. On the other hand, the latest weather reports suggests that it is raining Red Sox. Boston is plunging downward like a falling weather satellite, and their fans can't boo loudly enough. Put it this way: If the Rays do indeed pull this off, they need to thank the Red Sox for playing their part.

One week to go, and you can say this about the Rays' chance of reaching the postseason: They have one. On the other hand, who cares about the explorers who almost discovered the New World, and who cares about someone who was this close to discovering the internet? As long as the Rays are this close, they might as well win it.

If that is going to happen, someone — maybe a few someones — needs to make a memory. Someone needs to get hot. Someone needs to take a bat to the odds.

Remember 2008, when Dan Johnson took a cab from nowhere, stepped out and hit a dramatic home run against the Red Sox? Yeah, like that. Remember Dioner Navarro's bases-loaded single a week later? Remember David Price adding juice to the Rays pitching down the stretch?

This time, someone else needs to lead the charge. Maybe Evan Longoria, who has hit .284 with 12 homers and 35 RBIs during the Rays' 40-game charge. Maybe Desmond Jennings, the marvelous rookie. Maybe Casey Kotchman or B.J. Upton or Johnny Damon. Maybe James Shields or Price or, considering Thursday night's performance, Matt Moore.

At this point, everyone is a candidate. The pitching has to stay sharp, and the defense has to stay crisp, and a few more bases-loaded hits wouldn't hurt.

Down deep, everyone knows that it is good that this team has made a season matter until its final week. The Rays have the community now. Their hands are around Tampa Bay's collective heart, and they can lift it up, or they can squeeze it until it breaks. There is no middle ground.

Win the wild card, and a lot of people around here are going to smile.

Lose, and they may wreck someone's health.

Tampa Bay Rays will be remembered for what they do in final week 09/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 23, 2011 7:19am]
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