September will challenge young Rays
Inexperienced ballclub heads into season's tough final stretch
ST. PETERSBURG -- One month to go in the 2008 baseball season, and once September plays its cards, the Rays will know if they will venture into their first postseason.
Throughout the season, the Rays have silenced negative forecasts by continuing to overcome obstacles and remain in first place. Now, as they begin the most important month in franchise history, they find themselves atop the American League East by a margin of 5 1/2 games over the second-place Red Sox.
Everybody knows how September seems to bring about another brand of baseball. Some teams can handle it, others can't.
"I think our guys are finally getting it, they are finally understanding it," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Believe me, there's a certain kind of September energy that just comes your way when you are in the hunt. And regardless of how tired you may be, you just find somehow to get to that next level on that specific night."
Normally, baseball players maintain the "one game at a time" mentality and never acknowledge that any game at any time is more important than other games. Sill, veterans such as Trever Miller, understand the magnitude of September games.
The month of September "does become more magnified when you are in a pennant race," Miller said. "The games aren't necessarily more important than the first game of the year, they all count for one win, one loss. ... However, when you get closer to the end of the year, the numbers start to be more manageable and you get the magic number thing going. ... Whereas in April you didn't, so that goes into the importance of it and that gets magnified."
September will be difficult for the Rays, who embark on a schedule that will see them play just 10 of their final 27 games at home. You have to like the team's chances at Tropicana Field, where it has a 52-19 record, but its remaining home games are against the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Twins.
Facing the Yankees at Tropicana Field in a series that starts Tuesday will bring the Rays their first September test. And despite the 12 1/2 games separating Tampa Bay and New York in the standings, the Bombers are not to be taken lightly.
"Never count anybody out until they've got an 'X' by their name," Rays closer Troy Percival said. "They have a good squad."
However, Percival doesn't feel this initial September test against the Yankees will be any different than earlier tests this season.
"Everybody's been hyping up every series that we've had all year," Percival said. "[Saying] this is the road trip [the Rays] are going to fall, this is the homestand they are going to fall, it's been going on around us all year, so I don't think it's really going to affect us that much."
|"It still feels like we have something to prove."|
|-- Scott Kazmir|
Following the grueling road trip, the Rays will return to St. Petersburg to finish out their home schedule with three games against the Red Sox, who are 0-6 at Tropicana Field this season, and four against the Twins, who are fighting to win the American League Central or to earn the AL Wild Card berth.
The Rays' final eight games of the season are at Baltimore and Detroit. The series against the O's will include a twi-night double-header on Sept. 23, which includes a makeup game from April 3. A difficult twist could come in the first game at Detroit, when the Rays will play a 1:05 p.m. ET contest on Sept. 25 after playing the O's in a 7:05 contest on Sept. 24.
Looking ahead for the Red Sox, who are measurably better at home (45-19) than on the road (34-38), they will play 17 of their final 26 games at Fenway Park.
Indeed, the Rays have a tough road in front of them, but they won't be taking anything for granted, despite their 5 1/2-game cushion heading into September.
"Like Joe says, 'We have to keep our eyes on the prize,'" Rays left-hander Scott Kazmir said. "It still feels like we have something to prove."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.