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Are these guys threatening to turn AL wild card into a race? Just ask the Rays

Rays pitcher Vidal Nuno and catcher Nick Ciuffo celebrate another series-sweeping victory, this time against Rangers on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018. [Associated Press]
Rays pitcher Vidal Nuno and catcher Nick Ciuffo celebrate another series-sweeping victory, this time against Rangers on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018. [Associated Press]
Published Sep. 20, 2018|Updated Sep. 20, 2018

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Rays still have got a long way to go and a short time to get there if they're gonna do what they say can't be done.

If the Smokey and the Bandit paraphrase doesn't work for you, then let's try another theatrical reference.

How about the Rays forcing the A's into the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid role, looking down at their relentless pursuers, asking in frustration,

"How can they do that? … Who are those guys?''

We went to the video because if the Rays somehow pull this off, there might be another movie worth making.

The relentless band of relatively unknowns kept up their pursuit, and their threat to turn what seemed like long shot dreams into a real, live race for the final American League playoff spot, wining again Wednesday, 9-3 over the Rangers.

That was their fifth straight victory, a majors-best 14th in 17 September games, and 23rd in their past 28 overall, improving to 85-66, a stunning 19 games over .500.

But most importantly, it kept the Rays within 5 1/2 games of the second wild-card-leading A's — who beat the Angels 10-0 Wednesday  — continuing their slow creep as they gained 3 1/2 games in five days, including taking two of three from Oakland last weekend, though with only 11 left to play. (And, just sayin', had they won Friday, rather than losing 2-1 in 10 innings, the margin would be down to 3 1/2.)

"It's tough because we understand we don't have a lot of games left,'' third baseman Matt Duffy said. "Oakland's been playing well. Maybe taking a series from them knocked them off balance enough. I don't know, we'll see.''

Consider Duffy, who has been part of a winning Giants team, the pragmatist in the room, cautioning about whether they really are in the race or still on the fringe, given the size of the challenge.

But on the other side are some of the optimists. Newly crowned 20-game winner and AL Cy Young favorite Blake Snell has taken the lead for weeks saying how confident he was that they will find a way to pull this off, and he's gaining a supporting cast.

"I think everybody in this clubhouse is just getting ready for a wild-card game,'' starter Tyler Glasnow said.

Somewhere in the middle is manager Kevin Cash, finding the balance in his comments to acknowledge how well they've done to get this close but not wanting to create any reason for the players to start doing things differently.

"We need help, there's no doubt about that,'' he said. "I like the way the guys have continued to go about their business day to day. That's very cliche, but sometimes you have to go with that and control what you can control.''

Help would be nice, maybe something historical, such as the 1964 Phillies blowing a 6½ game lead with 12 to play by losing 10 straight.

But what Cash has been most pleased with is the way the Rays — so many of them early in their careers and young — going through this for the first time, paying no heed to any pressures, real or perceived, and looking at it singularly rather than the enormity of the task.

"I understand the magnitude of what's taking place the next two weeks,'' he said. "We need to go play good baseball and not overemphasize what outside sources feel.''

The Rays are starting to get a bit of a reputation, the national media showing some love and opponents acknowledging what they're seeing.

"They showed in this series that they're legit,'' said Rangers veteran Adrian Beltre, noting the offense ("They find a way to score runs"), the depth of the pitching staff ("Everybody over there throws 100") and the ringleader ("Snell was untouchable").

"They have a good team. If they were in a different division, they'd be in first place. They're young, but they play the game right.''

Beltre saw plenty over three days. Wednesday's win was the product of a big offensive day, capped by Tommy Pham's two home runs and five others with multiple hits, plus good enough pitching starting with Diego Castillo and Ryan Yarbrough, who earned his team rookie-record 15th win.

Another thing for Cash to be pleased with is how the Rays have not slipped to play down to the level of their competition. If they don't make it, getting swept at home by the White Sox, losing eight to the majors-worst Orioles and going only 2-4 against the Marlins will be high on the regret list.

But the Rays showed well against Texas and will need the same level of focus with seven games left against the Blue Jays (starting Thursday night in Toronto) around four with the Yankees, knowing they truly have to approach every game like it is the most important of the season.

"The only thing we can worry about is that we can't win out if we don't win today,'' Duffy said. "If you get too far ahead of yourself as a group, that's how you let a game or a series all of a sudden slip out from under you.''

Just follow the script. Or write one.

AL WILD CARD

Team        W-L        GB   GR
Yankees   93-58     +3     11
A's             91-61     —     10
Rays           85-66     5.5       11

Games remaining
Yankees (11): Red Sox (1); Orioles (3); at Rays (4); at Red Sox (3)
A's (11): Angels (2); Twins (3); at Mariners (3); at Angels (3)
Rays (11): at Blue Jays (4); Yankees (4); Blue Jays (3)

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