BALTIMORE -- A few minutes before taking the field to stretch Wednesday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Rays gathered around TVs in the visitor's clubhouse at Camden Yards to watch the Boston Red Sox. As Carl Crawford's fly ball to left put the finishing touch on the Toronto Blue Jays' 5-4 win over the Red Sox, the Rays erupted in cheers and high fives.
Boston's loss gave the Rays extra bounce as they prepared to play the Baltimore Orioles and take aim at gaining ground in the American League's wild card race.
Five hours later, the clubhouse mood was glum. After losing 6-2 to the last-place Orioles, the Rays were dejected and milling around quietly as they packed for Boston and thought about dropping four games behind the Red Sox with 14 games remaining.
"We were excited, but now we are bummed,'' Rays shortstop Reid Brignac said. "The Red Sox don't lose many times at home, and so when they did, we though we had a chance to pick up a game.''
The Rays, buried in double-digit deficits in early August, are running out of time to continue their unexpected drama in their late-season surge to play in October. They start a must-win, four-game series Thursday night in Boston's Fenway Park, a series that will determine their chances of making the postseason for the third time in four years.
Rays manager Joe Maddon said their predicament isn't critical yet, but it's getting there. "It's not absolutely necessary that we sweep, but winning more than half would be good. Time is running out. I will not dispute that.''
"Definitely we have to win three of four," Rays outfielder Matt Joyce said.
Centerfielder B.J. Upton pointed out that the Rays' fate is in their hands. "We still control our own destiny. We believe. The games will be close, and there won't be any blowouts. It's going to be a playoff atmosphere.''
There's no disputing the Rays have had an amazing run: On Sept. 3, the Rays were nine games behind Boston for the wild card. No team has ever come back from a deficit that big in September to make the postseason.
The Rays are trying to make history on another level as well: They have a chance to become the fifth team in history to overcome a deficit of six or more games with 20 or fewer games to play to make the postseason.
The last two teams to do it were the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies and 1995 Seattle Mariners. The Phillies overtook the New York Mets to win the National League East after trailing by seven games with 17 to play. The Mariners were six out with 16 to play, but then caught the California Angels and beat them 9-1 in a one-game tiebreaker to advance to the franchise's first postseason.
In 1964, the St. Louis Cardinals trailed Philadelphia by 5 ½ games with 13 to go, and won the NL pennant. In 1951, the New York Giants surged back from a 6 ½-game deficit with 17 to play to tie the Brooklyn Dodgers and then beat them in a three-game playoff to go to the World Series.
"It'd be something to be mentioned with those teams,'' Rays designated hitter Johnny Damon says. "But we go one day at a time. We have to make sure we stay loose and take the stress out of our game. We need to enjoy this because nobody's expecting us to do anything.''
Although the Rays have a tough climb, there's reason for optimism. They are 10-4 in Fenway Park in the last two seasons, and their pitching staff has held the Red Sox to a .158 average in five Fenway games this season.
The Red Sox are slumping, going 3-10 so far in September, their worst stretch since opening the season with six straight losses. Their primary set-up man, Daniel Bard, blew an eighth-inning lead on Wednesday to Toronto. DH David Ortiz has back issues and Adrian Gonzalez, who leads the AL with a .340 average, might not play because of a calf injury. The Red Sox's ace pitcher, Josh Beckett, is returning from injured right ankle Friday night. Tonight's pitcher is September callup Kyle Weiland, who has a 6.75 ERA, and Weiland is pitching against AL Rookie of the Year favorite Jeremy Hellickson, whose ERA is 2.96.
The key for the Rays is their rotation. They are the only team in baseball that has had a home-grown pitcher start each game, and their rotation leads the AL in ERA (3.49), innings (978 2/3), strikeouts (764) and complete games (15). The problem, though, is an inconsistent offense and a bullpen that is weakened and had to use a committee approach because closer Kyle Farnsworth has elbow tenderness.
Their rookie leadoff batter, outfielder Desmond Jennings, has cooled off. He had 15 multi-hit games and 15 steals since his promotion from Triple-A on July 23, but he's in an 8-for-58 slide.
"I know I haven't been hitting that good lately, but they've been pitching me pretty tough,'' Jennings said. "I knew I couldn't hit the way I was hitting for the entire season. I'm going to be fine.''
This month has been a roller coaster for the Rays. On Sept. 6, they had a 0.5 percent chance of winning the wild card, according to coolstandings.com. After a weekend home sweep of the Red Sox and a road win vs. the Orioles on Monday, they were three games back and their chances had improved to 12.2 percent.
But the Orioles won the next two games, dropping the Rays four games back and lowering their chances to 4.5 percent.
On Tuesday night, Orioles catcher Matt Wieters hit Rays reliever J.P. Howell's changeup for a home run in the eighth inning to give the Orioles their 4-2 lead. As the ball was leaving the ballpark, Howell dropped to one knee and stared into the dirt on the pitcher's mound.
Afterward, Howell said of the home run, "You go blank. You get a nasty feeling. It's disgusting. It makes you feel punished, like you took a punch.''
The Rays took another punch on Wednesday night, managing just three hits in a 6-2 loss.
"We haven't supported our pitchers all year,'' Damon said. "If we had scored for them, we'd have 90 wins. We need to hit better.''
As the Rays packed for a late-night flight to Boston, they were putting the usual spin on losing in Baltimore: All AL East teams are difficult to beat. They weren't expecting to run the table. They've managed to bounce back all season.
Still, Tampa Bay knows that it has made life more difficult on itself. "We definitely missed an opportunity," said Maddon.
The Rays will have another opportunity this weekend, but it may be their last one.