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Relaxed Rays keep the pressure on Red Sox

09.16.11 at 12:19 am ET

After Tampa Bay reconvened following the All-Star break they sat six games out of first place with a respectable 49-41 record. Manager Joe Maddon told his team that they were still in it, and they were. Less than two weeks later they were 11 1/2 games back and in the words of center fielder B.J. Upton, “A lot of people wrote us off.”

But now? “You can’t ask to be in a better place from where we came from and we’re excited about it,” Upton said.

The Rays are now three games back of the Red Sox in the wild card race after their 9-2 victory at Fenway, Thursday night and while they know they have a long way to go, they can’t help feeling pretty good about where they are in mid-September.

“We know there’s no pressure on us,” Upton said. “We’re just out here having fun. Joe said right after the All-Star break that we’re not out of this thing. Just keep winning ballgames and we’ve done that and here we are, three games back with three more to play against these guys, and a lot of games to make some ground up. We take it day by day and try to win each day and that’s it.”

The one game at a time mentality is of course the oldest cliche in the baseball book, but the Rays have bought into it. And why not? After a night in which they rallied behind an unlikely play in which a ground ball by Upton reached shortstop Marco Scutaro at precisely the same time as a sawed-off bat and kickstarted a four-run inning, Maddon saw it as a sign from above.

“You’re always look for signs,” Maddon said. “The baseball heavens, the baseball gods, they’ve got to throw you a sign every once in a while and they’ve got to give you to further the belief. Believe me, when I saw that I thought, ‘Hey let’s see what’s going to happen the rest of the game.”

What happened is that Evan Longoria followed up with a three-run homer, Casey Kotchman hit just his eighth career home run against left-handed pitcher and Upton crushed the laws of physics when he sent a monster shot over the Monster and through the nasty winds that were blowing across Fenway.

“Actually, I had my back turned,” Maddon said. “I was talking and I heard it. I could tell from the sound of the bat, wow. I never saw it, but I heard it.”

The ways of baseball are weird, but there’s nothing mystical about the Rays’ success against Boston this season. Their pitchers have compiled a 2.58 ERA, allowing just 31 earned runs in 108 innings, helping them to a 10-5 mark and six straight wins against the Sox.

“Honestly, I have no tremendous revelations or understanding,” Maddon said. “I know we get really jacked up to play these guys. Our pitching is good. Maybe it’s just a higher level of execution versus them by our guys, I don’t know. I’ve never really sat there and tried to break it down.”

The old storyline about the small-market Rays chasing the big boys in New York and Boston? They’re beyond that now.

“I think you could have said that in the past, but we’re kind of past that,” Upton said. “They know we have a good ballclub and we know they’re always going to have a good ballclub. We’re not really looking at the payroll or anything like that. We got to go out and play and we feel like we match up well and we’ll see what happens.”

And yet.

Despite all that good feeling — and all that pitching — the Rays are still chasing.

“To tell you the truth, I would rather be three up at this point,” Johnny Damon said. “We do have to play the teams we’re trying to catch. It’s going to definitely come down to the last couple of days, if not the last.”

Damon knows as well as anyone how dangerous the Sox are and how much work they have to do with seven more games against the Yankees on top of the three they have left at Fenway. “When you talk about the American League East, it’s almost like the SEC [in football],” Damon said.

Damon was asked how he thought his old team was following after their latest loss. “Hopefully like [David] Ortiz said, they’re in panic mode,” he said before turning serious. “They have so many good players who have been through tough times in the past. The only thing we can really think about is how these guys in here feel. We can’t really be worried about how they’re doing.”

So the Rays keep plugging away, staying in the race and keeping the pressure on Boston and living for today.

“It’s one game and it’s great to get the first one like we did, but it’s about Friday night now,” Maddon said. “Let’s win tomorrow’s game and move on from there. You have to do that. You’ve got to think of it in those terms. If you start getting clumpy with your thoughts and you’re thinking four in a week and how many games you’ve got left, it’s really going to get in the way. Just stay in the present tense.”

The present being a far better place for the Rays then where they were less than two months ago.

Read More: B.J. Upton, tampa bay rays,
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