I'm ready. Are you?
The Tampa Bay Rays are getting ready to face a stretch that the team has never seen before. For only the second time in their history, the Rays are going into September in the middle of the playoff hunt. But it's a little different this year. The Rays aren't trying to hold anyone off.
This year, they're chasing.
The good news is, the Rays have a favorable schedule. The bad news is, that schedule could also knock them out of contention over the next 17 days.
Three playoff teams. Seventeen games. Starting tonight, each pitch becomes do or die. Each at bat takes on new meaning. There's no room for error. There's no room for mistakes. The Rays are on the outside looking into a room where nobody wants them.
The next 17 days are going to be a roller-coaster ride for the team and their fans. This is still uncharted territory for the Rays. They've never chased the way they're chasing now. In the lean years, Rays' fans longed for a chance to chase a wild card berth.
This team has the talent to pull a nice run together. The question is, can they?
Here are five things the Rays need to do to make that run:
1. Defense, defense, defense
As each out gets magnified in this chase, the Rays can't afford to have the defensive lapses that have plagued them all season. Last year, the defense was a big key to helping the pitchers. This year, the defense seems to give the pitchers a little more work. Akinori Iwamura's return should help in the infield, but the Rays need to stay focused. Some of the defensive lapses seem to come from lack of concentration.
2. Deep starting pitching
If we start seeing a lot of Randy Choate, Brian Shouse, and Russ Springer, get ready to watch the Red Sox and Yankees in the playoffs. The Rays need strong starts to set up the Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell combination in the late innings. Scott Kazmir has looked like the Kaz of old lately. Now, the rest of the guys need to return to the dominant form that carried them to the World Series last year.
3. No more offensive slumps
All year, the Rays have been battling slumps in their lineup. Except for Jason Bartlett and Carl Crawford, all of the hitters have been streaky. That has to end now. The Rays lineup needs consistent at-bats from everybody one through nine. Last year, the Rays lineup looked like murderer's row every day. This year, opposing managers have exploited weaknesses in that row each and every night. It's time to shore it up and put some fear into the guy on the mound.
4. No off nights
For some reason, the "off game" has plagued the Rays all year. I'm talking about the games that they don't even seem to show up for. Games where the other team's starting pitcher looks like Cy Young and the Rays are baffled from the get go. There's no room for that kind of game any more. There's no room for coasting through a game for the first three innings. Each game counts. Each inning counts. Each at bat counts.
5. Get some breaks
Let's be honest, the 2008 Rays seemed to get a lot of lucky breaks. Just ask Red Sox fans. While I believe you make much of your own luck, the Rays need a little bit of the charm now.
The next 17 games aren't for the faint of heart. It starts tonight and we'll truly find out what this team is made of.