MLB Playoff Picture: Can the Tampa Bay Rays Finish the Red Sox Off?

Jim FolsomContributorSeptember 23, 2011

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 22:  Evan Longoria #3 of the Tampa Bay Rays connects on a second-inning RBI double against the New York Yankees on September 22, 2011 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The 2011 Major League Baseball playoff picture is about as cloudy as it could be with one week left in the season. This is a great thing. There is nothing better than a 162-game season coming down to the last days with the postseason on the line. For those "purists" who complained about wild cards, shame on you.

The Rays have stormed from behind in the month of September, trailing Boston by nine games on September 2, to cut the Sox's lead to two games going into Friday's action. The Sox are on fumes, hoping to hold on for dear life to get into the playoffs. If they cannot hang on, it will be deemed a collapse worthy of mention with the 1986 World Series and the 1978 late-season collapse Bostonians cringe at the mere mention of.

The Rays, on the other hand, left for dead after most of the stars from last season's American League East champions left for greener pastures (green as in $), have scratched and clawed and hung around and are now in position to sneak into the MLB playoffs for the third time in four years. How have they done it?

They did not back in by any means. Yes, the Sox have folded up like a $2 shotgun. But the Rays deserve a lot of credit for that. Boston came into a three-game series in St. Petersburg on September 9 still leading Tampa Bay by 6.5 games. The Rays promptly swept the Sox, cutting the lead to 3.5.

Saturday's middle game of the series could have been a soul crusher. Closer Kyle Farnsworth gave up back-to-back jacks to the Sox to tie the game. But Evan Longoria's run-scoring single in the 11th won it for the home team.

This past week, the Rays faced the Sox at Fenway in a four-game series. They limped their way in to Boston on the heels of two straight losses to the Orioles. Four games back, the Rays needed to take the series from the Sox. And they did just that. They walloped the Sox in Game 1, 9-2. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first in Game 2, but could not keep the momentum going and lost a tough one, 4-3.

They had to have the next two games to have any kind of a chance. The Sox were up four games and were looking at hosting the last-place Orioles for four games while the Rays were going to Yankee Stadium for four. The Rays won a nailbiter on Saturday 4-3 and then held on after jumping out to a big lead on Sunday, 8-5.

The Yankees series did not go well, as they lost three of four. But thankfully, the Rays got help from Baltimore as the Sox also lost three of four. So now it comes down to this:

Tampa Bay will host the Blue Jays for three games and then the Yankees for three. Boston will travel to New York for three and then to Baltimore for three. And let's not forget about the Angels in all of this. They are only three back of the Sox and one behind the Rays. This promises to be one interesting week in one crazy September.

Hey, it could all end with the Red Sox rooting for the Yankees on the last day of the season. Does it get crazier than that?