ST. PETERSBURG -- Entering Monday night's game, the Rays had 20 games remaining on the schedule, with seven of those games coming against the Yankees. Many fans believe what happens in those games will determine the Rays' fortunes. Manager Joe Maddon does not agree.
"To me, it's rather easy," Maddon said. "We have 20 one-game series left, starting tonight. I'm not moving away from that. We're only going to play the last game of the season this year and win it if we go about our business in that manner.
"Regardless of who we're playing or where, I just want us to come out and prepare the same way. Just three tough series on the road. Baltimore played us really good. Boston did. And, of course, the three games against Toronto. You play in the American League East, it's like that every night. I just want us to go about our business as normal. Walking into the clubhouse today, they all looked the same and I felt really good about that."
Based on the standings entering Monday night's action, the Rays' situation now appears more like the team is fighting for seeding in the playoffs rather than survival, which prompted a question to Maddon regarding the importance the Rays attach to winning the AL East.
"We're going after first place hard," Maddon said. "We have a banner up there already. We want another one. I think when you win the American League East, one part of it is, obviously, you get home-field advantage. No. 2, it's great to say you won the American League East. In baseball, it's one of the more difficult divisions in all of sports to say you won.
"... At the end of the season, to be able to raise that [banner] is very significant to the organization, too. So we want to win it for a lot of different reasons. We're not looking through the rearview mirror, we're looking through the windshield. We want to win the division, too."
On road swing, Zobrist's swing rejuvenated
ST. PETERSBURG -- Ben Zobrist is coming around at the plate.
On the just-completed road trip, he had eight hits -- seven of which went for extra bases -- and his 11 RBIs led the team.
While Zobrist is still 22-for-113 (.195) in 36 games since missing six games (July 28-Aug. 3) due to lower back stiffness, which dropped his average from .306 on to .252 entering Monday night's game, he feels as though he's headed in the right direction.
"This is the best I've felt all year with my swing," Zobrist said.
Rays manager Joe Maddon pointed out that Zobrist isn't missing his pitch right now.
"If it's a pitch that he could really deal with, it's not being taken, it's not being fouled off -- it's going this way," said Maddon, pointing toward the outfield. "I think earlier in the season, a lot of pitches that he could really drive he was either taking or fouling back. So that can speak to mechanics, and I know he's been working with [hitting coach Derek Shelton] a bit.
"But more than anything, I think it's a proverbial confidence thing right now. He's feeling good now. He's seeing the ball well now, obviously. Now when he sees a pitch he likes, it's going that way [to the outfield], and he's laying off the borderline pitches. There's not as many check swings or chasing outside the zone."
Maddon said he began noticing a positive change in Zobrist beginning in the Baltimore series, the first leg of the road swing.
"I've kind of liked his at-bats," Maddon said. "... For the most part, he's been looking like this for several weeks now."
Rays' Soriano has Maddon's confidence
ST. PETERSBURG -- One day after Rafael Soriano blew his first save since July 20, Rays manager Joe Maddon reaffirmed his conviction to use his All-Star closer at any crucial point, even if Soriano was ailing.
Who could blame him? With 42 of 45 saves converted -- one shy of a club record -- and a consecutive saves streak of 19, the Rays know the game is all but won when they turn to Mr. Dependable.
"Regardless of whether he had a cold or not, or whatever was going on, I'd still rather have him out there than most anybody else," Maddon said with a smile. "I'd take my chances."
Soriano confessed to not sleeping well Saturday night and not feeling great Sunday, either, but the 30-year-old workhorse also understood the importance of his role down the stretch and decided to tough it out. Maddon not only appreciated the effort but commended the performance, which resulted in a two-run walk-off homer for Toronto's Adam Lind and a 5-4 loss.
"We're building that game for that purpose of him pitching at that moment, and I'll take him less than 100 percent vs. a lot of guys," he added.
True to form, Soriano refused to make excuses afterward and said prior to Tampa Bay's series opener with rival New York that he felt fine and was "ready to go."
It was decidedly a spot of pregame good news. The Rays entered Monday trailing the Yankees by a half-game in the division, and Soriano has three saves, a hold, a win and a 1.98 ERA against the American League East foes.
Aybar gets turn in Rays' starting lineup
ST. PETERSBURG -- Those fans hoping Joe Maddon had an innovative reason for inserting designated hitter Willy Aybar into Monday's lineup would be sorely disappointed. For all of the creative, inventive ideas the Rays manager tosses out during the course of a season, the choice to put Aybar in action was plain as dry toast: It was simply Aybar's turn.
"First of all, nobody really reads well against [Monday starter] CC Sabathia," said Maddon, of the Yankees' 19-game winner. "I don't care, it's very rare that you get a hitter that's, 'Oh, I really like him in that situation,' so you have to contend with that."
Tampa Bay added a plethora of talent after September's roster expansion, and has so far gotten good mileage out of its entire roster. The Rays continued to showcase their flexibility Monday by inserting Aybar in the eight-hole.
The decision boiled down to three players, with Aybar the honoree after the switch-hitter had been off the past few days. As far as the science of choosing, Maddon admitted there was definitely nothing "crystal ball-esque" about his move, just that Aybar needed to get some at-bats in. Other potential inserts were Rocco Baldelli and Dan Johnson.
It probably didn't hurt any that the 27-year-old Aybar entered Monday's contest with a double, a homer and four RBIs in 13 at-bats against Sabathia, who has amassed six wins in his last seven starts.
The Rays have made their intentions clear, declaring their goal is not simply to make the playoffs but to win the American League East as well. They'd put themselves in a good spot to do just that should they succeed during the three-game home series with New York, which leads them by a half-game. As it all starts with Monday and Sabathia, Maddon pegged Aybar to go from there.
"I'd like to believe it's going to be the same in regards to aggressiveness [no matter who is in the lineup]; you just have more choices now at this time of year," he said. "For the most part, everybody that's on this roster right now is participating. When it comes down to winning the game, we could use any one of them."
Rays recall McGee, send down Ekstrom
ST. PETERSBURG -- Tampa Bay recalled left-hander Jake McGee from Triple-A Durham after Monday night's 1-0 walk-off win over the Yankees, and optioned righty Mike Ekstrom to the Bulls in order to make room on the roster.
McGee went 1-1 with a 0.52 ERA and a save over 11 games (one start) at Durham after his Aug. 7 promotion from Double-A Montgomery. Monday marked the first Major League callup in the 24-year-old's career.
Ekstrom, 27, will go down to log some innings for the Bulls and likely rejoin the Rays when Durham's playoff run comes to an end. He is 0-1 with a 4.38 ERA this season over 11 games with Tampa Bay.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. Dawn Klemish is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.