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REALITY BITES RAYS AS THE END NEARS

Though the recent skid sinks playoff hopes, individual chases and future roles hang as carrots.

The Rays maintain - however half- or quarter-heartedly - they still have something to play for. "We're just going to keep battling and see what happens. Until they say we're done, we're not," reliever Dan Wheeler said the other day, reading from commissioner Bud Selig's cue cards.

But the reality is, the Rays aren't playing for what matters, which is the chance to return to the postseason.

The American League East championship they were so proud of will be officially surrendered soon, before the end of this weekend even, as their tragic number to be eliminated from the division race is down to four (a combination of Rays losses and Yankee wins).

The wild card they for so long stubbornly didn't even want to consider is all but gone as well.

Consider it this way: If the Red Sox win just 10 of their 23 remaining games, the Rays have to go 20-2 to surpass them. Heck, if the Sox lose all 23, the Rays still have to go 10-12, which at this juncture would be a challenge.

Sure, there is a chance to affect who does go - to play "spoiler" - with three games left with both the Red Sox, starting tonight, and the Rangers, but that's not of much consolation.

"We'd rather be going to the playoffs," centerfielder B.J. Upton said.

So what, over the next three weeks, do the Rays have left to play for?

Numbers

Third baseman Evan Longoria has already reached his two major goals - 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. Now he's taking aim at becoming the first Ray to win a league RBI title, trailing New York's Mark Teixeira 106-103. First baseman Carlos Pena's 2007 team record 121 is a longer shot.

Leftfielder Carl Crawford's chances for a fifth stolen-base crown (in seven years) may depend on circumstance - how much he wants to run in games that don't matter, and how often Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury, who holds a 60-56 lead, has to run in games that do. Crawford is three shy of his career high.

Shortstop Jason Bartlett won't win the AL batting title, but with a .331 average that was fourth going into Thursday's play, he should finish as the highest ranking Ray (Aubrey Huff was ninth in 2003 at .311). Plus, Bartlett has a good shot at eclipsing Crawford's 2007 team record of .315, needing just to hit about .200 from here on out.

Pena has a four-homer lead over Teixeira (39-35) but can't do anything about it due to his season-ending injury. He also leads in strikeouts with 163, eight ahead of Oakland's Jack Cust.

Starting pitcher Jeff Niemann needs two wins to tie the team record shared by Rolando Arrojo, Edwin Jackson and James Shields.

Respectability

A month ago, the Rays were on track for 90 wins, expecting to play meaningful games for the rest of the season and confident they'd make the playoffs.

Now they've lost eight straight, 12 of 15, and 19 of 31, and are 72-68, and a winning record might be a challenge - they have to win 10 of their remaining 22.

There's also this: If the Rays don't win at least 87 games, they'll have the worst season-after for an AL East champion since the 1998 Orioles went 79-83.

2010

Pitcher Wade Davis will have at least a couple of starts to show he can be ready to join a rotation of Shields, Matt Garza, David Price and Niemann.

Arbitration-eligibles Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, Lance Cormier, Gabe Gross and Dioner Navarro can provide more data for the Rays to evaluate in deciding whether they are worth keeping. The same with catcher Gregg Zaun, who has a $2 million option.

Second baseman Akinori Iwamura's approximate $5 million option isn't expected to be picked up, but the Rays may consider offering him a lower-priced deal. But they also can look at Sean Rodriguez, the key player acquired from the Angels for pitcher Scott Kazmir, once Triple-A Durham's playoffs are over, and look further at Ben Zobrist.

* * *

For rookie of the year consideration: Jeff Niemann

Jeff Niemann has made a pretty good pitch himself for the American League rookie of the year award, with the best record (12-5) and lowest ERA (3.57) among starting candidates. And the Rays are working to help him follow Evan Longoria as a winner, with manager Joe Maddon making almost daily comments and the public relations department sending out an info sheet to voting media pointing out he left five other starts with the lead, has allowed two or fewer earned runs in 17 of his 26 starts, has two complete-game shutouts, beat Toronto's Roy Halladay twice, etc. "He easily could have 16 or 17 wins based on how well that he's pitched," Maddon said after Wednesday's latest gem. "That's why I believe that he not only should be a strong consideration - I'm hearing other names in regard to rookie of the year that I don't believe have had the same year he's had, maybe other teams in contention a little bit closer than we are - but when you break down what he's done and how well that he's performed, I don't think any of them measure up." Voting, done by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, is done at the end of the season and announced in November. Here's a look at the field:

Pitcher, team G W-L-S ERA IP K/BB Avg.
Jeff Niemann, Rays

27 12-5-0 3.57 1611/3 106/50 .256
Ricky Romero, Jays 24 12-7-0 4.14 1472/3 115/65 .277
Rick Porcello, Tigers 26 12-8-0 4.26 1412/3 76/43 .268
Andrew Bailey, A's 59 6-3-23 2.06 741/3 79/22 .181
Player, team G AvG HR RBI OBP SLG SB E K/BB
SS Elvis Andrus, Rangers 122 .277 6 32 .340 .398 26 19 64/34
3B Gordon Beckham, W.Sox 83 .274 10 52 .350 .458 6 12 53/32
OF Nolan Reimold, Orioles 99 .274 14 43 .362 .459 8 4 74/45

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