Now, after Friday night's 11-1 win over Minnesota, one game is all they need.
The Rays are teetering on clinching a franchise-first playoff bid, with Friday's victory dwindling the club's magic number for one of the four American League postseason spots to one. What that means is they need to win just one of their remaining two games against the Twins to secure a ticket to October. Or they need one loss by the Yankees and the White Sox this weekend, which would put the Rays in the postseason regardless of the outcome of their next two games.
A crowd of 28,306 at Tropicana Field saw the American League East leader record its 91st victory this year, and with the win, it maintained a 1 1/2-game distance over second-place Boston. The win -- coupled with Boston's win over Toronto -- puts the Rays' magic number to clinch the division at nine.
But Friday night's win wasn't about Boston and the division, although the Rays have no intention of slinking back and accepting the AL Wild Card spot. And it also wasn't about the outcome of the White Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays games -- as those three losses would have backed the club into the playoffs on Friday night.
Instead, it was about a Rays team that has appeared to have a date with destiny all season long, finally having a say in how it gets there.
"We've been through so much the whole season -- just the fact that we're going to do it ourselves," Dioner Navarro said. "We aren't going to depend on anybody [to lose]. I think this is going to mean a lot for everybody in here."
And although the Rays will chalk Friday night's victory up as just another "W" in their amazing season, it was a telling one. When play was halted in the fourth inning to review Carlos Pena's ball that hit the right-field fence, the Rays sat in the dugout and patiently waited. Pena stood out on second. And together, they all believed.
"The guys were like, 'Hey Carlos, come out -- just try and score,'" Pena said of his teammates. "I'm like, 'No, [the umpires] will come out. And of course they did, and changed the call."
Of course they did. In a season full of highlight-reel performances, it was only fitting that the first time an umpire's call was overturned on instant replay review, the Rays would be on the winning end of it.
After four minutes and 10 seconds of review, Pena's two-out blast off Twins right-hander Boof Bonser was changed from a fan-interference double to a three-run homer. The three runs -- which gave starter Edwin Jackson a nine-run cushion at the time -- came much the same way the Rays' storybook season has: with a little patience and a lot of belief.
"You know how they say you first have to see it in your mind before it can actually happen in reality? We did," Pena said. "And people might think, 'These guys are crazy,' but we believed it like kids. We saw ourselves in the hunt for something later on in the season, and look where we are. We are exactly where we thought we were going to be."
And they did it on Friday with the exact plan that has them in the playoff's driver's seat -- strong starting pitching.
The 25-year-old Jackson responded to the Rays' early offense with a magical performance that ended in a career-high 12th victory. After allowing a pair of runners on board in the game's opening frame, Jackson kept the Twins scoreless through the first five innings, allowing just one run in 7 2/3 innings. At one point, the right-hander retired nine straight batters, and silenced the same Twins bats that busted out for a five-run come-from-behind, ninth-inning win on Thursday night.
"Sometimes you can get a little bit tight, I believe, in a game [following a loss] because you want to come back the next day and do so well," Cliff Floyd said. "I always feel once [Jackson] gets through the first inning, he's good. So giving him a three-run cushion just adds to him relaxing a little more."
Following that three-run first, the Rays put up another trio of scores on starter Nick Blackburn, driving the right-hander from the game after 1 1/3 innings. Those six runs, coupled with Pena's three-run blast and a pair of scores in the sixth, arguably had Jackson in a recliner.
"Defense, offense, everything was working," Jackson said. "At this point, we are trying to play pressure-free."
And with potentially the most important game in franchise history looming, the Rays are taking the time to enjoy the magic in their magic number.
"To be in this position is unbelievable," Floyd said. "That we are even talking about this right now -- it's been a long time coming. And we're looking forward to celebrating."
And a chance to do it on their own terms, in front of a crowd that has waited a decade for a reason to cheer, would be silver lining atop a dream-like season.
"It was different [Friday night], because it was all about us," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of the heavily pro-Rays crowd. "And I really enjoyed that. And I know our guys did, too."
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less