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Rays must summon September magic for late push


ANAHEIM -- Another September to remember for the Rays? With 23 games left, 11 at home, they have it in their hands to shape their destiny. Those hands just need to get a firm grip.

"Our history in September is that we've been really good," Evan Longoria said Thursday night. "I don't think that's going to change. We have to figure out a way to improve and win games, even if it's ugly -- the way it has been. We'll find a way to turn it around."

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Leaving the extreme heat of Southern California for the crisp air of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, the Rays lost ground to Boston, but not New York in the American League East following a rare humbling of David Price at Angel Stadium.

As Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and their buddies began hacking away at Price, the Red Sox were prevailing in a Yankee Stadium donnybrook after surrendering a comfortable lead. In September, you do pay attention to these things, even if you're a continent away. Scoreboard watching is on high alert.

With Boston's assistance, the Rays remained 2 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees in the AL Wild Card chase. Also on the outside looking in are the Indians and Orioles (three back), and Royals (4 1/2 off the pace) in what is shaping up as a manic scramble for the two Wild Card slots.

This assumes the Red Sox -- in front of the division by 6 1/2 games -- retain their AL East grip, and the Rangers and A's win enough times to reach the postseason again out of the AL West. Assuming anything, of course, is risky business.

The Rays, as Longoria pointed out, have recent history on their side heading down the stretch. September has been good to manager Joe Maddon's troupe the past two seasons.

They came up short of the postseason last year, despite finishing at a .633 clip over the final 30 games. No baseball fan who was alive and kicking on Sept. 28, 2011, will forget the images of their dramatic finish at Tropicana Field that night.

Late home runs by Longoria and Dan Johnson produced a stunning 8-7 triumph against the Yankees, lifting the Rays into the postseason as a Wild Card entry. They won their last five games and six of the last seven to get there.

"It seems like in September we always step up," said reliever Jake McGee, the winning pitcher in Games 161 and 162 in 2011. "We won [12 out of 14] last year and almost made it, and the year before, we finished it out in Game 162.

"We still have the core group: Longo, [Ben] Zobrist, Price. Jose [Molina] has won World Series games. When you have a good mixture of guys like this team has and a history of coming through, it's a good feeling this time of year."

Johnny Damon, their catalyst in 2011, made reference to the Rays' "karma" during their late drive. The karma had an expiration date, enforced by the Rangers in the AL Division Series. But once you've done what they did, it is sitting there in the memory bank, to be withdrawn when needed.

That time has arrived.

The Rays were looking to Price, their ace, to send them north with three wins in a row. But the Angels, releasing some frustration in a season of disappointment, came out smoking with the bats.

Price actually was fortunate to be down by only four runs after yielding 10 hits in the second and third innings alone.

"It's always frustrating when you don't perform well for your team," said Price, who found his groove in the fourth and spared the bullpen by making it through seven innings.

Now the Rays look to Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Matt Moore to neutralize the Mariners.

After leaving Seattle, the Rays will have the opportunity to take flight at home -- against high-level opposition. They have three with the Red Sox, go to Minnesota for three, and return home for four-game sets with the Rangers and Orioles.

A three-game series in New York from Sept. 24-26 could go a long way in deciding whether the Rays go to the postseason or scatter to their winter homes. Tampa Bay finishes with a three-game series in Toronto.

The Rays have dropped nine of the past 12, largely because the offense has evaporated with just 17 runs in those nine losses. The Rays are hitting .136 in their past 66 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

"I am focused on trying to figure out how to get the offense going," Maddon said. "Stay centered, focused, in the present tense. That's how you get out of it.

"Definitely we're trying way too hard. They all care too much. They want this badly. I'm trying to get them to relax and let it happen."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for

Tampa Bay Rays