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Timely Rays now becoming timeless

BOSTON — The beauty of baseball, they say, is that it is a timeless game. No clock, no timekeeper, no hurry. Naturally, the people who say that have never tried to hang on to first place in a pennant race.

For around here, every minute lasts an hour. Every game has become an epic.

The Rays have moved beyond baseball and are playing a game of survival. They are trying to survive injuries. Survive the Red Sox. Survive the calendar. Maybe even survive the odds.

And, as Wednesday night turned into Thursday morning, darned if the Rays didn't survive another day. Not to mention another shaky performance by closer Troy Percival.

One game after Dan Johnson hit a ninth-inning, game-tying home run, it was Carlos Pena's and Jason Hammel's turns. Pena blasted a three-run homer over the Green Monster in the 14th inning, and Hammel came in with the bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the inning for his first career save.

And the Rays left Boston with a bigger lead than when they arrived.

It has been this way most of the season. Anonymous stars, nondescript heroes, unlikely leading men. It's almost as if the Rays thrive on the idea that they have no MVP candidates in the clubhouse.

At different points in the season, the catcher, the first baseman, the shortstop, the third baseman, the leftfielder and the rightfielder have been on the disabled list. And someone has always plugged the hole.

"It would be different if we were the team picked to come in first place and we had a bunch of superstars going down," Percival said before Wednesday's game. "But we're just this bunch of rag tag guys with a little talent. We weren't supposed to do anything.

"So guys coming out and doing the best they can every night is all we have ever expected."

Four of the past five games have either been one-run, or extra-inning affairs. The past 10 days have felt like 10 months. And after today's breather, the Rays have 18 games in the final 17 days of the regular season.

Can they really expect to win calling up Fernando Perez, a career minor-leaguer, and plugging him in the starting lineup a few days after his major-league debut?

Can they hold on calling up Johnson, a minor-league first baseman, and give him his first major-league start as an outfielder at Fenway Park?

And in another few days we'll probably see Michel Hernandez, a 30-year-old minor-league catcher acquired two weeks ago to bolster Durham's playoff roster, starting a game at Yankee Stadium.

Is the struggle in September more about attrition than pressure?

"I haven't spoken about that a whole lot," manager Joe Maddon said this week. "If you're going to constantly point at Carl (Crawford) not being here or Longo (Evan Longoria), then I'm denigrating Willy Aybar and all the guys playing leftfield. The guys have done a really good job. Willy's had a hell of a month. Of course, it's not quite like having those other guys there.

"Is it catching up to us? We've had our troubles with left-handed pitching before, regardless of who's been in the lineup. And we just came off the best month in the history of the organization with those guys playing a real primary role. We just played two good teams and lost four out of five and that happens. Of course, right now it's going to be questioned in a little more detail and I understand that. But I like the way we're playing."

The offense has virtually disappeared. They are 4-for-56 (.071) with runners in scoring position on this road trip. Their only home runs in the past five days have been game-tying or game-winning shots in the ninth inning or later. They have been scoreless in 35 of the past 41 innings they've played.

Yet, as bad as the past week has been, the Rays have gone 17-11 since Crawford and Longoria went on the disabled list in early August.

"Anytime you're down your No. 2 and No. 3 hitters, you can never expect the same offense," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "At the same time we have some very good hitters. Cliff (Floyd) and Carlos and a number of guys have stepped up and performed extremely well. That's why it's so important to have depth to withstand those injuries that come along."

There are still hurdles in front of them. There are still questions to be answered.

Maddon must decide whether he can afford to keep Percival as his closer, and the offense can not possibly continue at this horrid pace.

But, on Sept. 11, the Rays remain in first place.

They have survived, yet again.

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

Timely Rays now becoming timeless 09/11/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 12, 2008 2:33pm]

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