BALTIMORE — It’s already October for the Tampa Bay Rays, who have switched into playoff mode in a late push to overtake the sagging Boston Red Sox for the AL wild-card spot.
After losing four of five, Tampa Bay trailed the Red Sox by nine games on Sept. 2. The Rays have since gone 8-1 and entered play Tuesday within three games of a Boston club staggering toward the finish.
The key was a three-game sweep of the Red Sox over the weekend, capped by a 9-1 rout on Sunday.
“Everyone has stepped up and contributed to this run,” Rays designated hitter Johnny Damon said. “Now we have to keep it going.”
Tampa Bay kept the momentum going Monday night by beating the last-place Baltimore Orioles 5-2. The atmosphere at a near-empty Camden Yards was anything but electric, but the Rays treated the game as if it was the World Series.
“We already started the playoffs,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “The playoffs started Sept. 9. We’re going for the two-month gig. We’re going for the World Cup. There’s no letting up. Every game from our perspective has a playoff atmosphere attached to it. That’s the way it should be, and that’s the way we have to approach it.”
There’s no need to preach that philosophy to the players, who are well aware of the situation.
“Hopefully we can be in the playoffs for a month-and-a-half,” Damon said. “These games (against the Orioles) are just as important as the ones we just played and the ones we’re going to be playing.”
The Rays close out the three-game series Wednesday night before heading to Fenway Park for four games against the Red Sox, who had a five-game losing streak through Monday. Then come four games at Yankee Stadium, followed by the final homestand: three games versus Toronto and three against New York.
“We’re playing teams we need to catch,” Damon said. “That’s the only reason that we do have a chance — that we have to go head-to-head with Boston and New York.”
The Rays aren’t just a ragtag outfit trying to keep pace with the big boys. Tampa Bay went to the World Series in 2008 and won the AL East last season, so these guys know how to cope with must-win situations.
And this, to be sure, is a must-win situation.
“We still have some big games left in this season and we know we can make a run. We have that confidence,” center fielder B.J. Upton said. “A lot of us have been in pressure games in September and in the postseason, and that experience helps us.”
That’s why Maddon believes the Rays will be able to take care of business in Baltimore before turning their attention toward those four pivotal games in Boston.
“I really want to believe our guys have that (winning) attitude,” he said. “I believe we are going to come out every game with that attitude.”
The Red Sox have a payroll that dwarfs that of the Rays, and their fans pack the house every game. Damon spent four years in Boston, so he knows how important it is for the Red Sox to be successful.
Not that he cares.
“Hopefully, they’re feeling us,” he said. “They’ve got some great players that have had great careers and postseason careers also. For us, the only thing we’re thinking about is what we’re doing. We’re in the situation that we need to be good. If we’re good enough to get through this, we’ll go to the playoffs. If not, then we definitely made it interesting.”
No one predicted the Rays would even do that, given that they’ve been locked in third place since May 24.
“We got counted out so many times this year — as recently as several days ago,” Damon said. “Now we’re making it exciting, but we also know that we can’t let off the gas pedal. We need to keep pushing and getting better, and hopefully it rewards us at the very end.”