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To Tampa Bay Rays, today's game is pivotal

BOSTON — The Rays will still be alive in the AL wild-card race if they lose today, but essentially only technically.

They came into the four-game series saying they needed three wins — to ensure they would be no more than two out with 10 left — so that makes today about as close to must-win as there is.

"It's very important," manager Joe Maddon said. "We're going for another version of Meat Loaf. Two out of three's normally when we're going to Meat Loaf somebody (from the song Two Out of Three Ain't Bad, by Meat Loaf). Three out of four may be closer to chateaubriand."

They will put the ball, and basically their season, in the hands of RHP Jeff Niemann, who is up to the challenge.

"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "The atmosphere is going to be awesome. I'm looking forward to going out there and experience that and feeling those kind of juices."

Longoria rolling: 3B Evan Longoria said he is just doing his part.

After an injury in Game 2 of the season that sidelined him a month and a slow first five weeks back as he got healthy, Longoria has been the game's most productive player. With a two-run homer in the first inning Friday against the Red Sox, he has a major-league-leading 78 RBIs since June 11 and an American League-most 24 home runs. Overall, he has 28 and 91 RBIs.

"For us to be able to be in the situation that we're in, in the playoff hunt, and to be feeling the way I'm feeling is huge, because for the better part of the first half, I didn't really contribute anything," Longoria said.

"So it's a big nod of the cap from my side to the rest of the team for doing what they did and not really packing it in and just getting us to where we could contend at this point."

Farnsworth improving: RHP Kyle Farnsworth's tender right elbow has improved enough for him to get to pick up a ball for the first time in a week, working toward a return next week in New York. He made 25 throws with a ball in a sock — a drill that limits the strain — and the Rays said it went well. "Definitely good," Farnsworth said.

Farnsworth said he'd hope to play catch unrestricted in Boston, then throw off the mound in New York on Tuesday with the idea he could be available by Thursday's series finale.

More medical: INF Sean Rodriguez has been limited since his lower back stiffened up Thursday morning, but he hopes to be back in the lineup for today's game vs. lefty Jon Lester. … OF Sam Fuld went for an MRI exam on his sore right wrist; the Rays didn't have the results as of game time. Fuld said he felt a little better; Maddon said he was again limited to pinch-running and defense.

Minor matters: LHP Matt Moore was named to Baseball America's minor-league all-star team. DH/OF/INF Russ Canzler and SS Hak-Ju Lee were second-team selections. Moore was named Double-A pitcher of the year and an all-star, Canzler a Triple-A all-star and Lee an advanced Class A all-star.

Pitching in: The Rays are expected to stay in relative rotation around the upcoming off day and doubleheader in New York, with Wade Davis starting Tuesday, James Shields (likely in the day game) and Jeremy Hellickson on Wednesday, and Niemann on Thursday.

Miscellany: The Rays stole seven bases, one shy of the team record. … Maddon's ejection was his sixth of the season.

To Tampa Bay Rays, today's game is pivotal 09/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 17, 2011 1:51am]
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