If the Rays can show the same intensity, the same fight several of them displayed in the dugout Sunday afternoon, they might just be able to stop this free fall.
And what better time to regroup than with a two-game series against the Red Sox at Fenway Park that begins tonight and kicks off a nine-game stretch against the Red Sox (five games) and the Twins (four).
"Going into Boston, we definitely need to try to take both of those games, if not one of them," said tonight's starter, James Shields. "We've just got to play harder. We've got to play with a little more intensity; we've got to play the game the right way. I think we need to get back to the way we played the first two months."
Ah, the first two months.
The Rays raced to a 32-12 record and a six-game lead in the American League East on May 23. Since then they are 12-19. The starting pitching has been spotty and the offense has been iffy at best.
The slide began May 24 when the Red Sox began a three-game sweep at Tropicana Field with a 6-1 victory and has dropped the Rays to third place, three games behind the division-leading Yankees and one behind the Red Sox.
"I never thought we lost ourselves as contenders," said Wednesday's starter, Matt Garza. "We've had a rough patch. Shoot, as bad as we've been playing, and we're only three games back, that's got to say a lot about where we were. So my thing is, the scary part is, we haven't been playing good baseball. So when we clicked back on, and it looks like it's going to happen pretty soon, a lot of scary stuff is going to happen to everybody else."
Rays second baseman Sean Rodriguez promised the Rays would have their "A" game when they take the field tonight at Fenway. Whether they have left fielder Carl Crawford is still a question. Whether they have center fielder B.J. Upton is up to Manager Joe Maddon, who said after Sunday's loss to the Diamondbacks that he will handle Upton after his lack of hustle led to a verbal (and almost physical) altercation with third baseman Evan Longoria in the dugout.
Both players said they immediately put the incident behind them. A good way to prove that is to start winning.
"(This series is) a great opportunity for us, and once again we try not to build it up too much," first baseman Carlos Pena said. "It's almost, in a long season like this, 162 games, we try to make sure we focus on the right stuff."
There are few things that can sharpen the Rays' focus more than the vocal Red Sox fans, who will pack the old ballpark and give it a playoff flavor. The Rays have been successful at Fenway. They swept the Red Sox in a four-game series in mid-April, though the Red Sox are a much improved them since then.
"So it's just going to be the same old dogfight, man," Maddon said. "It's great, it's very interesting. It's a lot of fun. I really anticipate or expected that we would be among two of three teams together, Boston, ourselves and the Yankees. So none of this is surprising. We talked a lot at the beginning of the season about getting off to a good start just to be able to absorb a slow moment like we're going through right now, because if you don't and have a slow moment, it gets increasingly difficult. It's an interesting race right now. I really anticipate it to be like this the entire season, and I'm really looking forward to that."
The loss of second baseman Dustin Pedroia (broken bone in left foot) will rob the Red Sox offense of his grit and production just as the loss of Crawford has hurt the Rays' lineup.
"I think they know where we're at," Garza said, "and Boston has been hit real bad with injuries lately. With (Clay Buchholz) going down and Pedroia out, (Josh) Beckett's still not back. So they're the ones who have the tough climb. You keep seeing those guys go up there and battle and battle and keep doing what they're doing, and us here are noticing what they're doing. Like, we're all healthy, what are we doing? So the light bulb is going to click on, and we're going to get on a roll pretty quick. So it's going to be a lot of fun."