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Rays' playoff push receives big boost in short span

Tampa Bay wins pair of crucial games over fellow AL Wild Card contender @RichardJustice

Here's to the Tampa Bay Rays. Nice going, boys. You guys will remember this little 24-hour stretch for a long time. You showed impressive staying power, along with toughness and resilience and a lot of other good stuff.

Now for the bad news. As satisfying as these two victories over the Orioles are, they don't actually win the Rays anything. All they did was keep the Rays in a shaky driver's seat for another day and in terrific position to make the playoffs for the fourth time in six years.

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Problem is, a couple of bad days could change everything. Headed to the playoffs one day, headed home the next. That's the tough thing about the crazy race for the two American League Wild Card berths.

Six teams are in the mix, separated by a mere four games in the loss column. To find six teams this closely bunched, you have to go back to 1995, the year the Wild Card was born. That year was even crazier since only one team made the postseason. This time, two will get in.

OK, back to the Rays.

If you caught them at certain times this season, you'd swear you were seeing the American League's best team. They had arguably the best rotation and an offense anchored by one of the best third basemen in the game, Evan Longoria.

And they got a huge boost from rookie outfielder Wil Myers, who hit .329 in his first 39 Major League games. He helped the Rays win 27 of those 39 games.

Then bad stuff started happening to the Rays. Right-hander Alex Cobb, who'd been as good as any pitcher on earth, took a liner off his head June 15 and missed two months.

Another starter, left-hander Matt Moore, went on the disabled list on July 31 with a sore elbow. Others struggled, too, and a team that had never been great offensively seemed to be fading away.

From Aug. 25 to Sept. 11, the Rays lost 13 of 17 to go from one game behind the Red Sox to 9 1/2 back. With the Yankees and Indians and other teams playing well, the Rays seemed headed right out of the postseason.

Just when things seemed desperate, they turned things around dramatically. Yes, just like that. Cobb and Moore returned. Big hits began to fall.

The Rays have won seven of 10 at the most important time of the season. If they end up back in the playoffs, these last two victories may be the ones they point to as giving them a final push.

First, there was Friday. Or was it Saturday? The Rays and Orioles played for 18 innings and almost seven hours. The Rays won it with the help of 11 pitchers and a huge David DeJesus walk-off hit in the 18th.

As impressive as that game was, the Rays did something arguably more impressive Saturday afternoon. They went home for a couple of hours and then played another game against the Orioles that started 11 hours after the last one ended.

They needed Saturday's victory every bit as much as Friday's. And that's where Cobb stepped up.

He allowed one run in 8 1/3 innings for his second straight solid start as the Rays got four RBIs from Desmond Jennings in a 5-1 victory.

So, sure, it was only two games, and they have only the slimmest of leads in the race for the two spots. But it was huge, both in terms of the standings and in terms of the emotions and confidence of a team that has had a roller-coaster ride of a season.

So take a bow, Joe Maddon. You proved again why you're the best in the business. And you, too, DeJesus and Jennings and Ben Zobrist and the others. Maddon preaches that every player matters, and he proved it Friday by using 28 of them to get the victory.

There was less drama Saturday because Cobb took over. He's coming up large at the end, having allowed three earned runs in 16 1/3 innings in games against the Rangers and Orioles, two teams fighting for the same things the Rays are fighting for.

The Rays left Tropicana Field happy Saturday afternoon, but will try to do it all again Sunday in their final home game of the regular season. They've got a road trip to New York and Toronto to finish it up.

This race is too close to predict anything, but the Rays had a good couple of days. So here's to you, Joe Maddon, the best in the business. Here's to Alex Cobb, too, and to David DeJesus and Desmond Jennings and the others. If this thing plays out the way you hope, you'll remember these two games as magical.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Tampa Bay Rays, Alex Cobb, David DeJesus, Evan Longoria, Matt Moore, Wil Myers, Ben Zobrist