Tom Jones: Rays switch from survival mode to contender

CLEVELAND

Just after midnight, the visitor's clubhouse inside of Cleveland's Progressive Field turned into a disco.

Thumping music. Dimmed lights. And champagne, lots of it. Although this champagne, mixed with a heavy dose of silly string, spent more time being poured over heads than into mouths.

The Rays were celebrating, having just won a game Wednesday night.

One game. A big game, for sure. The biggest of the season, in fact.

But just one game.

In order to win the World Series, they will have to win 11 more against three of the best teams in baseball, three teams that are way better than the one they played Wednesday night.

But this victory Wednesday night, 4-0 against the Indians in the wild-card game? That was the hard part.

Now comes the easy part.

The groundwork has been set, the foundation has been laid. The Rays have survived the scary stuff.

The rest is downhill. All the way to the World Series.

"We're not done," the Rays' Delmon Young said.

This team is set to go on the type of run that ends with a parade.

There will be more nervous nights to come, plenty of heart-stopping victories and, surely, a few heartbreaking losses to endure along the way. But after surviving a win-or-go-home game in Toronto on Sunday and in Texas on Monday and in Cleveland on Wednesday, the Rays can practically fall into the Fall Classic.

Think about that. Three wins in three cities and two countries in five days.

"When you go through something like that," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "it has got to galvanize you, doesn't it?"

Yet, as odd as it might seem based on all that, this Rays team really isn't built for just one game.

They are better than that.

With their steady defense, deep starting pitching and versatile bullpen, they are perfectly suited for a best-of-five series, a perfect team for a best-of-seven series.

For the past six months, this was a team that frustrated, confounded and confused you. When they won, they looked as if they might never lose. When they lost, they appeared as if they would never win again.

Some days you looked at them and thought no one could stop them and other days you wondered how in the heck they could possibly make the playoffs.

Suddenly, however, they are starting to get that look, that special aura that special teams get when the calendar flips over to October.

They seem to be getting whatever they need to win, whether it's a timely double play and big strikeout or a key hit.

Take Wednesday. Rays starter Alex Cobb was in trouble all night, seemingly always one pitch away from stepping on a booby trap that would send the Rays catapulting into the offseason.

He escaped a one-out bases-loaded jam in the fourth, a no-out, two-on minefield in the fifth and, with the help of reliever Joel Peralta, a two-on, one-out tightrope in the seventh.

Meantime, Young, plucked off the scrap heap late in the season, blasted a solo homer and Desmond Jennings, coming off a tender hamstring injury, cracked a two-run double.

And when it was over, after all the fires were put out and all the jams were escaped, the Rays were booking a flight to Boston for a best-of-five series that starts Friday afternoon.

"We're not going to ease up now," pitcher Matt Moore said. "We're still going to play like there's no tomorrow."

Many teams would be afraid of heading to Fenway Park, which houses the team that finished with the best record in the American League this season.

But not the Rays.

They share the same division as the Red Sox. They've played them 19 times this season, winning seven. They know the Red Sox. And they know something else. They know they can beat them.

So, you see, the Rays have plenty going for them. They are playing outstanding defense and their best hitters — Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and, of late, Young — are hitting like their best hitters.

But two key elements put the Rays in position to win it all:

One is pitching. They have four confident starters — David Price, Cobb, Matt Moore and Chris Archer — who seem to spend more time embracing these moments than running from them.

And they have the best manager in baseball in Maddon.

No matter what decision he makes, whose name he calls, or what hunch he plays, it's the right one.

Look, the next three weeks won't be easy. But if the Rays can win three consecutive games like they just have, all of which could have ended their season, you start to wonder what or who can end their season.

And then you start to wonder if it really will be all that hard.

Tom Jones: Rays switch from survival mode to contender 10/03/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 3, 2013 1:24am]

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