View Full Game Coverage
ST. PETERSBURG -- This week's race to the coveted American League East crown is so tense, so tight that one false step, one untimely miscue, could be the difference.
That's why the final three games for the Orioles and Yankees, dead even at the top after Sunday, are like walking a tightrope. There's little margin of error.
So, when Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado booted Evan Longoria's smash leading off the seventh inning in a 1-1 stalemate against the tenacious Rays on Monday night, the writing was on the wall.
The error opened the door for three unearned runs as the Rays, desperate as they try to keep their own postseason hopes alive, went on to stun Baltimore, 5-3.
Hours later, with the A's defeating the Rangers, 4-3, the Rays were, in fact, eliminated from playoff contention.
For the Orioles, that miscue came back to haunt them as their ninth-inning comeback fell two runs short.
"Going from grass [at Camden Yards] to turf here is an adjustment I need to make," said Machado in the quiet clubhouse. "I should have caught more grounders in batting practice and got used to it more, but that's no excuse."
Meanwhile, the Yankees clobbered Boston, 10-2, with a firestorm of second-inning hits and homers to take a one-game lead in the division.
Too bad for the Orioles and their outstanding season.
They gained the postseason for the first time since 1997 late Sunday, but they were deprived of the typical clubhouse champagne-squirting celebration and a victory lap around Camden Yards for their long-deprived fans. That's because their trip to the postseason wasn't official until the Rangers defeated the Angels in the second game of a doubleheader hours later.
And to make the Orioles most important day in 15 years even more bizarre, their charter plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Jacksonville, Fla.
When they finally arrived here, the team went to a room at the hotel, had a quiet toast and that was it.
Division title or Wild Card?
A victory Tuesday night against the Rays at Tropicana Field, coupled with a New York loss to Boston, would knot the division again, setting the stage for Wednesday's final game.
The Red Sox are so dreadful, especially with some of their best players sidelined with injuries, it's difficult to see them defeating New York in the next two games, especially at Yankee Stadium.
The Orioles' best chance coming to St. Petersburg seemed to be sweeping the Rays and hoping Boston wins at least one game -- or a worst-case scenario: a one-game playoff against the Yankees to determine the AL East champion.
Adam Jones was reminded how tight the execution must be in these crucial games. Give the opponent an extra out and it can be costly.
"The Rays are always good," he said. "Every game is always the same. They play until the last out is made and so do we. We just didn't take care of our business. We lost and that's something we had control over. When it comes to the Yankees, we cannot control if they win or lose."
Regardless, what the Orioles have done this season shouldn't be tainted if they're unable to win the division. They face an uphill battle to win the East, but this team has been written off more times than you can count.
They're assured of a Wild Card berth, but as Jones said, "An AL East Champions banner would look much better."
Manager Buck Showalter said what's been accomplished this year "hasn't sunk in. I've gotten some really great texts from Rick Dempsey and different guys. It probably will be the offseason before we can step back and take it all in.
"It's kind of like the last game of the season last year [when the Orioles ousted the Red Sox]. You're so close to it and you're trying to stay on top of everything, you need to be on top of and you don't have much time to dwell on it."
Most of the current players are too young to remember much about 1997 and the Orioles' trip to the postseason that year.
"If you're under 30 you really don't remember, or even my age 27-28, you don't remember the 1990s," said Jones. "I don't remember the 1990s that well -- this guy was good, Cal [Ripken] was good. The respect is really starting to come around from the guys 40-45, 60-, 70-year-olds -- guys that have been around with Brooks Robinson. They've seen the ups and downs of the organization. To get their response now, their love and support, that's really starting to touch me."
A trademark of the Orioles under Showalter is that he's never allowed them to let up. That's a key reason why they've kept rebounding from down times this season.
Showalter insists he didn't make that happen.
"No, that was them; they just didn't let up," he said. "They were relentless in their pursuit and still are. It's a cruel sports world. This is the first time since February a game that could be played and there's a sense of finality to it. That's what's so different about baseball. You play so many games. The guys raised the bar here about what they wanted to be about."
He rattled off the names of several players, adding: "They share a lot of the same backgrounds and same goals. They were able to do it and maintain it."
Jones put it this way: "It's the first time they've succeeded at this level and the guys aren't giving up. This is all I have to do -- play baseball. I know it's tough and there's pressure to play the game. But when you wake up every morning with the opportunity to play baseball, why not take advantage of it?"
The Orioles have turned this into a magical, incredible season.
They've reversed a losing culture and refuse to let Monday's jarring loss alter their goal.
"When you finish first in your division, it's much more satisfying," said Jones. "Like I said, we have to take care of our business. It's that simple."
Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is Correspondent Emeritus for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter.