Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 9/2/12
The Tampa Bay Rays don't need to be reminded that Labor Day is upon them. They already know the time has come to get to work and they don't want to rely on any late-September magic this season to do the job. The task at hand is a formidable one filled with post-season ramifications a three-game home series starting Monday at 1:10 p.m. against the AL East front-running New York Yankees. The Rays roll into the critical showdown with a burst of new-found momentum following a 9-4 road win Sunday afternoon over the Toronto Blue Jays. Coupled with their dramatic 5-4 win over the Jays on Saturday, they offset a pair of narrow losses to the Jays Thursday and Friday and now trail the Yankees by 3.5 games with an chance to make up valuable ground. "We have time to do this," manager Joe Maddon told reporters in Toronto. "I know we believe that we can do this. We lost some really harsh games. And it's easy to go away after those kind of losses. We did not go away." It's the latest typically unpredictable twist in Tampa Bay's rollercoaster season, this one also featuring David Price keeping his Cy Young Award hopes alive in becoming the AL's first 17-game winner. Just two days ago, the Rays weren't exactly doing a stellar job setting up their potentially pivotal series with the Yankees. The only thing they seemed to be setting up was their own fall tumbling further back in the division hunt and down the Wild Card ladder. They hit with a thud Friday night the same way Elliot Johnson did when slammed into catcher Jeff Mathis, scraping up his face in the home-plate dirt for the final, heart-stopping out of the game. Trying to score from second on a Carlos Pena single, the swift Johnson was thrown out by Toronto rightfielder Moises Sierra to preserve a 2-1 victory in the top of the ninth. It was a particularly painful way to go for the Rays their 11th one-run loss in 12 games, coming on the heels of getting shutout 2-0 Thursday night by the Jays. This certainly didn't look like the team that had just rocketed through August with 14 wins in 17 games and 19 of their last 25. Their three-game set with AL West leader Texas at the front end of the road trip hadn't helped much, either with two losses in three games, leaving them 1-4 in the first five outings of the seven-game swing. But then came Saturday afternoon's reversal of fortune and a singular moment that could stand out as the turning point if the Rays reach the playoffs this season. After blowing leads of 4-0 and 5-2, they went into the bottom of the ninth desperately trying to hold on to a precarious 5-4 edge. All-Star closer Fernando Rodney was in trouble, having walked Omar Vizquel to lead off the inning and watched him take second on a sacrifice bunt. Rodney got Raji Davis to fly out to center for the second out, only to yield what looked like a game-tying single to Colby Rasmus a hit that easily could have deflated Tampa Bay hopes for a turnaround. But centerfielder B.J. Upton scooped the ball up and unleashed a laser from mid-center on a perfect line to catcher Jose Molina, who blocked the plate like a pro. Vizquel slammed into Molina's left leg but couldn't get around the burly former Blue Jay and was called out by umpire Jordan Barker. Rodney, hovering over the pile-up at the plate, added his home jubilant out signal and unleashed his imaginary arrow skyward to celebrate the win not to mention his 40th save this season, albeit a little close for comfort. For the record, no pitcher in major league history has reached that milestone with a lower ERA than Rodney (0.73), according to Stats, Inc. (the next closest was Oakland's Dennis Eckersly (0.77) in 1990. The symmetry of the final out was uncanny, considering the way the Rays had lost the night before. In fact. the Friday-Saturday walk-off defensive gems separated by 19 hours marked the only two major league games this season that ended when the game-tying run was thrown out at the plate. And it finally gave the Rays a one-run win to enjoy after such a frustrating run of one-run losses. Two of them came earlier in this trip against the Rangers, 6-5 and 1-0, before the Rays' up-and-down offense of late re-ignited with an 8-4, 16-hit get-away victory out of the Lone Star State. And they followed a similar pattern in Toronto, leaving their best offensive showing for last with the 9-4, 18-hit outburst Sunday. The Rays jumped all over Jays starter Ricky Romero. In the first, leadoff hitter Desmond Jennings singled and eventually scored on Evan Longoria's double for a 1-0 lead. And in the second, new acquisition Ben Francisco started a six-run inning with a homer to left field, followed by five straight hits (a double by Ryan Roberts and singles from Molina, Jennings, Upton and Zobrist) and a sacrifice fly by Jeff Keppinger. That 7-0 early lead put Price in the driver's seat, though he nearly squandered by uncharacteristically walking the bases loaded in the bottom of the second. He got out of the jam and exited with a 9-2 lead (courtesy of a Pena solo homer in the fourth and an RBI double by Francisco in the fifth). Price didn't have his best stuff, but he was better than in his previous outing the 6-5 loss to Texas, when he'd left in the fifth. This time, he pitched 6.2 innings, allowing six hits with four walks and five strikeouts, improving to 17-5 with a 2.54 ERA. "(The offense has) done a good job for me all year, especially early in the game, so it makes it a lot easier for me to go out there," Price said to reporters. Price won't be back on the mound until the Rangers come to town later in the week. In the meantime, the Rays will try to keep their new streak alive Monday with James Shields (12-8, 3.91) facing Yankees ace CC Sabathia (13-4, 3.40), followed Tuesday at 7:10 with Alex Cobb (8-8, 3.49) going against Freddy Garcia (7-5, 4.90) and Wednesday at 7:10 with Matt Moore (10-8, 3.58) squaring off against Hiroki Kuroda (12-10, 3.04). "We could have anticipated this (series) in the middle of June or July," said Longoria. "They're all going to be big down the stretch. You know, we're right in the thick of it. And it's just where we want to be. We have plenty of games left against the people we need to have them against to prove we're deserving of a playoff spot. So it's going to be fun. This is what we play for." The Yankees have struggled lately, losing six of their last 10. But there's a good chance they'll regain the services of slugging third baseman Alex Rodriguez Monday, out since July 24 with a fracture in his left hand. They're 18-17 without A-Rod, who was hitting .276 with 15 homers when he was hurt. Among the biggest fans of the Rays over the next three days will be the Orioles, who have closed the gap on New York (76-57) to two games after taking two of three in the Bronx. Refusing to fold, as so many have expected, Baltimore is now two games back at 74-59 with the Rays third at 73-61. In the Wild Card sweepstakes, Oakland remains in the top spot at 76-57, while Baltimore currently is in the second spot with Tampa Bay 1.5 games behind. It won't get any easier for the Rays, with first-place Texas coming into town for a weekend series followed by a road swing next week with three games in Baltimore and three in New York. That's why the Rays don't have to be told: The work begins now.
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