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Three days later, Tampa Bay Rays' chances seem very real for shot at playoffs

ST. PETERSBURG — Numbers still favor the Red Sox at this point.

Of course, the numbers aren't staring at Josh Beckett's tender ankle or Erik Bedard's sore knee. And the numbers have nothing on the medical chart (back sprain, sports hernia, hip bursitis) of Boston third baseman Kevin Youkilis.

Logic says the Red Sox are still in an enviable position this morning.

Of course, logic knows nothing of damp palms or nervous laughter. And logic cannot explain the increasing tightness of a pair of underpants when your lead in the wild-card race goes from nine games to 3½ in a little more than a week.

"Hopefully," Rays DH Johnny Damon said, "they can feel us coming."

Just three days ago, I tried explaining why it was a bad idea to get your hopes too high in the final 20 games of Tampa Bay's season. And it seemed to make sense at the time.

That was before Wade Davis, with a career ERA of 4.22, threw his first complete game in two years on Friday night. That was before the Rays won another walkoff game on Saturday night, giving them seven in barely a month.

And that was before the Rays used a starting lineup that included four guys who began the season in Triple A while completing a sweep of the Red Sox on Sunday.

"We're kind of in a fight right now. We know that," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "It's not real pretty."

The truth is, Tampa Bay remains a serious long shot. A 3½-game deficit with 17 to go is still a sizable hole.

The coolstandings.com website runs millions of computer simulations to calculate a team's odds of making the postseason, and it has the Rays' chances at 11.6 percent today. On the other hand, their chances were 0.6 percent on Tuesday.

"I think now (the Red Sox) know we're not messing around," said pitcher James Shields, who had another outstanding performance while winning his career-high 15th game on Sunday. "Before this series, I don't think they were worried too much."

That's the funny thing about confidence and pennant races. When things start going wrong, the world suddenly looks darker even when you sit atop the standings.

Joe Maddon understands this. Unfortunately, he once lived it.

This was back in 1995 when he was the first-base coach in Anaheim, and the Angels suffered one of the greatest collapses in baseball history as Seattle won the AL West.

Sitting in his office after Sunday's game, Maddon ever-so-casually mentioned that Anaheim's troubles began with injuries. (Hey, don't the Red Sox have some guys hurt?)

And he pointed out that the Mariners got hot that year when they acquired Vince Coleman in August, and he hit .290 with 16 stolen bases out of the leadoff spot. (Hey, isn't leadoff hitter Desmond Jennings batting .295 with 15 stolen bases since being called up?)

Maddon never drew a direct comparison with 2011, but the inference seemed clear.

"There were a lot of veterans on that (Angels) team, but when you walked in the clubhouse door, you didn't have a lot of nice, warm, fuzzy feelings," Maddon said. "There was a lot of doubt.

"It's hard to take that boulder and start pushing it back the other way."

The key, of course, is the Rays cannot afford to take a foot off the gas. And that has been an occasional problem this season. They have a better record against the Red Sox than the Orioles. And a better record against the Rangers than the Athletics.

Perhaps the Rays will find some inspiration in the news that Matt Moore will join their bullpen today. Just a week ago, it seemed the best pitching prospect in the minors was going to be shut down for 2011, but circumstances obviously changed this weekend.

The Rays had great success using David Price in the bullpen in 2008 (a 2.08 ERA) and not so much with Jeremy Hellickson in 2010 (a 7.20 ERA), so Moore might start off in a sixth- or seventh-inning role, at least for the short term.

In the meantime, the Rays have a chance to keep the heat on the idle Red Sox with a victory in Baltimore this evening. A victory would mean they whacked four games off the standings in five days.

"We've got a lot of fighters in here. We always believed we could do this," said centerfielder B.J. Upton.

"Now that we've cut the lead to 3½, it's going to make the last couple of weeks a lot of fun."

It will be for one team.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Three days later, Tampa Bay Rays' chances seem very real for shot at playoffs 09/11/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 12, 2011 12:05am]
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