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Tuesday, Sep 30, 2014

Fennelly: Pennant race wild, wild life for Rays

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Published:   |   Updated: September 17, 2013 at 07:51 AM

ST. PETERSBURG — Wild, wild, wild.

Jesse Crain, former White Sox all-star reliever, who hasn't pitched in a major-league game in 81 days, who the Rays traded for anyway, threw a simulated game Monday afternoon at Tropicana Field, hours before the Rays and Rangers, tied atop the wild-card standings, but mild cards lately, began a critical four-game series.

No simulation. The real deal. Ah, meaningful games in September.

Announced crowd: 10,724.

Crain drew a crowd at least: Rays brass, manager Joe Maddon, coaches, players, most of whom were in Minnesota on Sunday when a gassed Joel Peralta coughed up a sweep of the Twins.

That's this season right now, still in doubt, any and all help welcome.

This wild-card race might get that wild.

You want wild? How about the Rays at the Trop on Monday, starter Alex Cobb facing a blast from the past: Matt Garza, in his first start against the Rays, for whom he beat the Red Sox twice in the 2008 ALCS, including Game 7. The Rays could use that kind of tough down the stretch.

Well, they got exactly that in a 6-2 win Monday, their fourth win in five games, to take the No. 1 wild-card position.

They got Alex Cobb going eight innings and striking out 10, including the first three Rangers he faced.

“Cobber set the whole tone,” Maddon said.

They got Wil Myers. The Kid is having fun as September rolls on. He hit a solo homer down the right-field line off Garza, who was gone by the fifth inning, six earned runs. Myers immediately hit a two-run double to center field off Garza's replacement and later nearly hit a grand slam to center. It looked out at first.

“Tell me about it,” Myers said.

Still want wild? How about Monday's ultra-weird pitching matchup, one with true wild-card implications, Cleveland at Kansas City — Scott Kazmir at James Shields. Kaz! Shieldsy! That's three 2008 Rays World Series starters, and not one of them pitching Monday for Tampa Bay.

Want wild? True story: How about the man clown who, stripped to his undershorts, raced onto the field and tried to uproot second base? After a security guy tried a Dashon Goldson tackle (the league will hear about this), the nut case was led away, reportedly to a room under the stadium, where a Rays marketing guy tried to sell him 2014 season tickets.

OK, it wasn't that wild.

Here's wild. Here's the naked truth: The Rays and the Rangers, who've met twice in the postseason (Texas, 2-0), stumbled into each other. They were once division-title contenders. They were wild-card locks at the very least. But they kept on leasting.

Over a span of 14 days, ending Sept. 7, the Rays went from percentage points ahead of the Red Sox to Boston's champagne chilling as we speak.

But the Rangers make the Rays, 5-5 in their past 10 games, seem downright torrid. Texas went 0-6 at home last week, swept by the Pirates and A's. The Rangers have death dropped seven in a row, 10 of 11, 12 of 14 and 13 of 16. They've gone from a half-game AL West lead over Oakland to long gone.

Complicating this showdown are Terry Francona's surging Indians, who were just a half-game back of the Rays and Rangers on Monday morning and who finish the season with 10 games against three softball teams: Houston, the White Sox and Twins.

So it's seven left at home for the Rays, three more with Texas, then four with Baltimore. A .500 final homestand isn't an option. The Rays need to go at least 5-3 to head to New York and Toronto with some steam, or 90 wins is a dream.

There's no margin for error. One inning, one out, could matter, one way or another.

Heck, Jesse Crain might matter, though he's probably too late.

Alex Cobb mattered Monday.

Wil Myers mattered Monday.

Against Matt Garza, the Rays mattered more.

In Kansas City, Shields was up on Kazmir.

Wild, wild, wild.

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