Friday, November 24, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays head home, face formidable challenge: make playoff run now

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NEW YORK — The last bit of uncertainty about the Rays' immediate future was alleviated with word Wednesday that they had governmental approval to return to Tropicana Field and resume their home schedule, hosting the Red Sox on Friday.

With the impact of Hurricane Irma now seemingly behind the Rays, we can return to our original programming, which was debating whether the team still has a chance to make anything of the rest of this season.

Wednesday's 3-2 loss to the Yankees certainly hurt, as they all do this time of year, even more so because top starter Chris Archer struggled again and didn't get through the fifth inning.

That left the Rays at 72-75 and 4½ games and six teams behind from the second American League wild card they shared a month ago, with something less than the 3.9 percent chance to win it fangraphs.com's computer projections gave them to start the day, and only 15 games left to make up the ground.

Is there still time to make a run, or is it time to start thinking about, and looking toward, next year?

The Rays, from principal owner Stuart Sternberg to manager Kevin Cash to players throughout the clubhouse, will tell you they still believe they have a chance, albeit one requiring them to come pretty close to winning out.

"It would be Herculean," Sternberg acknowledged, "but we're not there yet."

The main root of their belief — as odd as it sounds 5½ months into the season — is that they have not yet played their best for any extended period, evidenced by the fact that at no point have they won more than four in a row.

"As a pitcher who pitches every fifth day and watches the games in between, I don't feel like we've gone on that collective run where we knew we were going to score runs and we knew we were going to prevent runs consistently for a week plus," veteran Alex Cobb said. "Where we showed up a the park and we're like, 'Everything is going to click today.' It's been kind of just battling to stay afloat.

"It's never too late for that, until the calendar flips to the next month. But it needs to hurry up."

Also helping their cause is that none of the teams they are chasing — not the Twins, not the Angels, the Rangers, Royals or Mariners—- have done anything to grasp control of the race.

So every time it looks and feels like the Rays are finally out of it after a critical loss, they seem to find themselves back in at least the conversation.

"I felt like that for the last month," Cash said. "We've gone back and forth, back and fourth. We've hung in there, I don't know so much by our doing, we've hung in there by some other clubs' doing.

"We've had the opportunity, we've just got to find a way to win games. And win a bunch of 'em quick."

Cash only has to look at what his former Indians team and old buddy Terry Francona are doing, at least for inspiration, as on Wednesday they won their AL-record 21st straight. Heck, 15 should be easy.

"It gives us hope," Archer said.

Looking back to dramatic late-season runs the Rays made to the playoffs in 2011 (in Game 162) and 2013 (in Game 163), Cobb and Sternberg said the key is not to look at what they have to do over the next 2½ weeks, just that day.

"We've been in this position before," Sternberg said. "Whether we have to leapfrog two teams or 22, it's about winning baseball games. And that starts with winning a baseball game."

When the Rays were going through their roughest stretch in mid August, losing 12 of 15, Sternberg figured that if they could get to 2½ games back by Sept. 15, he'd "feel all right" about their chances.

Cobb said it's better to keep it simpler.

"The most important thing to do right now is just get rid of the standings in our minds, get rid of the expectations, get rid of the pressure of the season barreling toward the end," Cobb said. "It's such a mundane quote to hear and read, but right now it's about taking it one game at a time."

As they try to get on that roll in the comforts of home, the AL East-leading Red Sox and NL Central-leading Cubs (managed by that Joe Maddon guy) come to town.

"Tropicana Field is in good shape, and staff are busy making sure it is ready for Friday," Rays president Brian Auld said. "Our biggest concern was not overburdening the remarkable first responders who have been working around the clock to get Tampa Bay up and running.

"Now that we have the go-ahead from them, we are encouraged to be getting things back to normal."

Well, that's something.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.

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