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MLB.com Columnist

Hal Bodley

Rays can make believers out of us all

Incredible hot streak has Tampa Bay poised for an exciting stretch run

Rays can make believers out of us all

ST. PETERSBURG -- If you believe in miracles, you have to believe in the Tampa Bay Rays.

In my most sobering thoughts, I know for them to make the postseason, it's more a dream than reality.

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Marathon runners often have little energy left in the tank when they near the finish line. For the Rays, it's like walking a tightrope. They cannot afford a misstep.

I just wonder if the energy they're spending to rebuild this once-lost summer will eventually take its toll. What they've been accomplishing since June 10 is pretty stressful, so draining it seems unlikely they can sustain it for the remaining 59 games.

We all know about the dog days of August and how they can sap the spirit from the most accomplished baseball teams. The baseball season is a 162-game, six-month marathon.

The Rays, after sending the Red Sox reeling to a 6-4 loss the night before with a gritty comeback and David Price's superb pitching, woke up Saturday morning still 7 1/2 games behind the Orioles in the American League East.

As recently as June 29, Tampa Bay was tied for the worst record in Major League Baseball. Just about everyone said the Rays' season was finished. Forget about all the preseason predictions and visions of another World Series dancing over Tropicana Field.

On June 10, Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals beat the Rays, 1-0. That excruciating loss, dealt by Matt Holliday's sixth-inning homer -- one of only three St. Louis hits -- left Tampa Bay with a 24-42 record, 18 games under .500.

It was not a matter when the coveted Price would be traded, but where. Ditto the likes of Ben Zobrist, et al.

A miracle was needed, etc., etc., etc.

With Friday night's win, the Rays are 50-53, only three games under .500 and 4 1/2 games back in the AL Wild Card race.

No team has played better than Tampa Bay since that fateful night at Tropicana Field. The Rays own the Majors' best record (26-11) since then and have played better than any team in their division. They're playing at an unbelievable .703 clip.

Take away the horrible spell when they lost 14 of 15 games, including 10 in a row from May 26-June 5, and we wouldn't be talking about miracles or the number combinations of how they might pull off the impossible.

I believe it will take at least 88 victories to win the division. For Tampa Bay to reach that plateau, it must win 38 of its remaining 59 games.

And while the Rays are at it, they must climb over the Blue Jays, Yankees and Orioles.

To put it bluntly, there's no wiggle room.

That brings us back to the energy issue.

Tampa Bay skipper Joe Maddon agrees about how much energy has been expended.

"But the one thing that's worked in our favor is the All-Star Game break and the three days off we've had recently," Maddon said. "That's really unusual going into August.

"I've been very mindful of that [energy issue], and have tried to give guys days off. The biggest problem is the bullpen, to win games and to do that, you can overload bullpen duress. That's my main concern. I think the guys on the field have been going through the same thing.

"I learned in 2009, it was the bullpen; that's the one place you can empty the tank on."

After Boston leaves town following Sunday's matinee, the going will get even tougher -- three with the NL Central-leading Brewers, three with the Angels, who've been on a tear, and then it's off to Oakland for the start of a 10-game road trip.

This is key: Beginning Aug. 22, the Rays play 26 games vs. AL East opponents. If they can sustain their momentum, that's when their season will be decided.

A myriad of scouts have been following Tampa Bay, and they're camped out at Tropicana Field this weekend.

Price, who has won six consecutive starts and has a 1.31 ERA during that span, is the most talked about, most sought-after player as Thursday's non-waiver Trade Deadline nears.

The Rays cannot and should not trade their ace now. That obviously would send the wrong message to his teammates, not to mention their fans.

It says here that Price's value will be just as great after the season, maybe greater, because more teams will be willing to part with their premier prospects that it will take to make the deal.

It was the Rays' leader, Evan Longoria, who broke Friday night's game open with a three-run double in a four-run seventh inning as Tampa Bay wiped out a 3-2 Boston lead.

Longoria, struggling much of the season, has repeatedly discussed not trying to do too much and not placing an extra burden on his at-bats.

Yet even Price said Longo's double was one of the team's biggest hits of the year.

Asked if in that situation he put extra pressure on himself, Longoria said, "Yeah, a little bit. But it kind of goes away when you come through. It was a situation where we already had tied the game, and in a sense, a little of the pressure goes away. Being level [tied], it's not as much of a do-or-die situation. I just wanted to put us ahead there.

"We're fighting to get back in this thing. We have to take these opportunities when we get them. ... It's nice to be reminded once in a while you can still hit in those situations."

Said Maddon: "If he doesn't get that done, we're in a really difficult spot. ... It's not just about Longo getting a hit, that was a big moment for us."

So is a miracle brewing?

There is just no room for a misstep during the next nine weeks.

To pull it off, the Rays are going to have to play at nearly a .700 pace. As a comparison, the Oakland A's, with the best record in MLB, are at .618.

"A little bit of swagger is back," said Maddon, who has for a week preached that Tampa Bay can reach the postseason. "Confidence is definitely on the rise."

Longoria put it this way: "We've won some games, and we've done some things that kind of remind us of what we're capable of doing, but by no means are we where we want to be. We definitely have to keep reminding ourselves that we've got a lot of work to do."

And maybe a miracle will come.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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