ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Best thing about Thursday for the bleary-eyed Tampa Bay Rays, of course, was simple: They're in. Somehow, some way, improbably, impossibly, incredibly ... they moved past Boston and into the wild-card slot for the first time since May at the very last possible minute.
Second-best thing about Thursday for the Rays?
In pulling off their miracle, they also avoided the dreaded one-game playoff with the Red Sox on Thursday.
Which means a team that has been in full-on sprint mode for weeks gets one very key day to rest its pitching before facing the Texas Airborne Rangers in Game 1 of an American League Divisional Series on Friday.
"It is very important not playing [Thursday]," manager Joe Maddon said amid the champagne showers in the Rays clubhouse overnight Thursday.
"Texas is very tough. Their numbers playing in their ballpark are sick. We've got to play our best baseball. We've got to be on our best behavior."
What Tampa Bay has had going for it all season is rich depth in its rotation. From James Shields to Jeremy Hellickson and beyond, the Rays can bring it on the mound.
But here was the state of Tampa Bay's pitching as the Rays were forced to chew through so many relievers during its wild charge this week that the bullpen stretched like salt water taffy: Starter James Shields, who beat the Yankees on Monday, was warming in the pen as the Last Man Standing in the 12th inning Wednesday.
Had the Rays been forced to play Boston in a one-gamer on Thursday, they would have had to get incredibly inventive to make it through (though perhaps not as inventive as chasing a trade with Kansas City for Bruce Chen).
"It's huge," All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria said of the chance to take a 24-hour breather before taking on Texas. "Those guys [the pitchers] have been grinding all year for us. You can't say enough about what the bullpen did [in Wednesday night's 8-7, 12-inning win over the Yankees]."
Now, Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey have a fascinating decision in choosing a Game 1 starter. Jeff Niemann, coming off of a sore back, or high-ceilinged prospect Matt Moore were in line to start the one-game staredown with Boston had it come to that.
Will the Rays elect to go with Big Game James Shields on short rest (he started Monday)? Niemann? Would the unconventional Maddon dare hand the ball to the rookie Moore?
It's all just one more good reason why Tampa Bay was thrilled to not have to play on Thursday: Gives them more time to think about these decisions.