Victory over New York Yankees in series finale could be Tampa Bay Rays' turning point

NEW YORK

The celebration will come later. This was not the night for champagne, and it was not the moment for reflection.

On the other hand, this will probably be the night you recall when the American League East banner is raised at Tropicana Field.

Technically, the Rays are still the second-place team in their division. Four days after arriving in the Bronx a half-game behind the Yankees, the Rays left on Thursday night in the exact same position in the standings.

Yet it felt as if everything had changed. It seemed as if the Rays had just seized control.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying the Rays are definitely going to the World Series. I'm just suggesting you start looking for flights to Philadelphia along with all of the necessary rabies shots.

By winning the final two games of the series, by coming from behind against ace CC Sabathia on Thursday night, the Rays put themselves in position to win their second AL East title.

Along the way, they may have also become the favorite to win the AL pennant.

"Here's what I like: I like getting down 2-0 to the Yankees and fighting back in their ballpark. Big crowd, all kinds of stuff going on, and everybody is in the moment. They're in the present tense," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I don't even look at the standings or the schedule. If we play this kind of game, we're going to be fine.

"Everybody is participating. This whole team plays. There's nobody sitting on the bench. Everybody has ownership in this situation. These are the things I think about. These are the things that are important to me. When we went to spring training, this is what we talked about. This is how we're supposed to play the game; like tonight. Theoretically, this is our game."

The wild card has become a safety net in the AL East, and so much of the drama of a pennant race has been erased. But years down the line, this is the kind of game that will be talked about as being pivotal in the chase of 2010.

It was the difference between the Yankees taking a 21/2-game lead in the division and blowing their chance to create a cushion in the season's final days. It was the Rays and David Price beating Sabathia for the second time in as many weeks. And it was yet another statement that Tampa Bay has nothing to fear against the sport's big spenders.

Seriously, who else would be considered the AL favorite?

The Twins have a one-game lead on Tampa Bay for the best record in baseball, but their record includes all the leftover fat of the AL Central. The Yankees still have a half-game lead on the Rays, but they've got the tougher schedule the rest of the way.

It's far from guaranteed, but Tampa Bay looks to be in the best position at this point.

This is the one team that has proved itself across the board. The Rays have the best road record in the league. They have the best record against left-handed pitching. And they are the only team with a winning record against all of the other playoff contenders.

Tampa Bay is 19-13 against the Yankees, Rangers and Twins this season. The Yankees are 16-16, and the Twins are 12-12. Texas is an unsightly 9-15 against the potential postseason field.

Obviously, those records won't mean a thing once October rolls around, but don't you think fans in Texas, Minnesota and New York would be feeling a bit more comfortable if their teams had the regular-season advantage?

"There's no pressure on us. We're not really worried about too much. We just go out there and play our ball club like we've done all year," said Rays centerfielder B.J. Upton. "There's 10 games left, and we're right at the top of the division."

Should the Rays win the division, they would earn homefield advantage in the first round with the likely opponent being Texas. Now homefield advantage may not be crucial for the Rays, but it is for the Rangers.

Of all the potential postseason teams in the American League, none struggles on the road as much as Texas. The Rangers are below .500 when they're away from home and are especially putrid against good teams.

Texas was a combined 0-10 in road games against the Rays, Yankees and Twins.

Sure, the Rays could face the 1-2 left-handed punch of Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson, and that might seem a little unnerving.

But Tampa Bay is probably the one team that can look at those matchups optimistically. After beating Sabathia on Thursday night, the Rays increased their record to 35-17 against left-handed starters.

Not convinced?

Then consider that Lee and Wilson combined to go 1-3 with a 4.72 ERA against Tampa Bay this season. For that matter, Sabathia was 1-2 with a 3.38 ERA against Tampa Bay.

And, I suppose, that's the point.

For all the nitpicking about this weakness or that flaw, the Rays have pretty much proved themselves every step of the way. And now they've almost reached the finish line.

Just a handful of games, and a shot at history, await.

Victory over New York Yankees in series finale could be Tampa Bay Rays' turning point 09/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 24, 2010 8:01am]

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