|Tampa Bay has won six straight vs. Boston. Pitching matchups favor the Rays in the next three. (US Presswire)|
BOSTON -- Honestly, they shouldn't be here.
The Rays shouldn't be within three games of the Red Sox with 13 games to play. They shouldn't look like the stronger team, the team you would much less like to face in the playoffs if you're the Tigers, Yankees or Rangers.
That's what I believed. I'm guessing that's what you believed.
But somehow, that's never what the Rays themselves believed.
"We weren't panicking when we were 9½ games out," David Price said Thursday. "We knew we had games left [against the Yankees and Red Sox]."
They were 9½ games out two weeks ago. It was already Sept. 3, in a season that will end Sept. 28.
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And the Rays still believed they could do it.
So yes, the Rays believe they can do it now. They believe their 9-2 victory Thursday, the one that cut Boston's wild-card lead to three games, could be followed by three more this weekend.
Yes, they believe they can sweep the Red Sox in four games at Fenway, the same way they swept them in three games last weekend in Florida.
"That's the goal," Price said.
And what do the Red Sox believe?
"Hopefully, like [David] Ortiz said, they're in panic mode," Rays designated hitter Johnny Damon said.
What if Price beats Tim Wakefield on Sunday?
Taken one by one, none of those results would shock you. And that's exactly how the Rays got this far, exactly why they have a legitimate chance -- still not a great chance, but a legitimate chance -- to take this improbable playoff run all the way to the end.
Unlike the Red Sox, who had to start overmatched rookie Kyle Weiland on Thursday and will start the struggling Wakefield on Sunday, the Rays have five real, top-line major-league starting pitchers.
More than five, if you want to know the truth.
"We run somebody out there every day where we believe we can win that night," manager Joe Maddon said, after rookie of the year candidate Jeremy Hellickson won Thursday. "Without our starting pitching, all these conversations [about a wild-card race] would not be happening."
As Maddon pointed out Thursday, they went into the season believing that Manny Ramirez would be a big bat in the middle of the order.
And then they spent most of the summer realizing that even when they did win a few games, the Yankees and Red Sox were almost never losing. The Rays went 18-10 in August (tied with the Tigers for the best record in the league), and gained only one game in the wild-card race.
"You think about the American League East, it's almost comparable to the SEC," Damon said, putting it in a way that football-mad Floridians would understand.
They wouldn't be close right now, except that the Red Sox suddenly look more like the team that began the year 0-6 and 2-10 than like the team that spent much of the summer as the best team in baseball.
Their rotation isn't deep, their lineup is beat up (manager Terry Francona said after the game that Kevin Youkilis won't play Friday), and their bullpen is something of a mess.
"Other than [Jonathan] Papelbon, [Daniel] Bard and [Alfredo] Aceves, I couldn't even tell you who's in their bullpen in the playoffs," said one scout who has followed the Sox this week.
Oh, and they really struggle to hit the Rays pitching staff. In 15 games this year, the Red Sox have hit .178 against Tampa Bay.
The Red Sox have now lost seven of their past eight and nine of 11 going back to Sept. 3. They've given the Rays more reason to believe.
But reasons to believe seem to be showing up everywhere right now for the Rays.
Check out what happened in the third inning Thursday night. With two on and two outs in a scoreless game, B.J. Upton hit a broken-bat ground ball to shortstop that should have ended the inning.
The broken bat and the ball somehow arrived at the same place (shortstop Marco Scutaro's feet) at the same time, keeping Scutaro from making the play.
Instead of an inning-ending out, it was a run-scoring single, quickly to be followed by a three-run Evan Longoria home run.
"You're always looking for signs, man," Maddon said. "From the baseball heaven, the baseball gods, you're looking for them to throw you a sign.
"And that helps your belief."
At this point, I'm not sure the Rays need any more signs. I'm not sure they need any more reasons to believe.
The rest of us still do. For the rest of us, maybe that Upton broken-bat grounder ("I've never seen that before," he said. "Definitely never seen it.")was the sign we need.
Yeah, I'm starting to believe. Maybe not as much as the Rays believe.
But I'm starting to believe.