Weekend series could be make or break for Rays
Losses to rival Blue Jays could launch Tampa Bay into sell mode
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Tampa Bay Rays' immediate future, if not the 2014 season, very well may be determined during this weekend's series against Toronto at Tropicana Field.
Yet if the Rays falter against the Blue Jays in the final series before the four-day All-Star Game respite, their slim chance of salvaging this mostly disappointing season will be greatly reduced.
A disaster against Toronto on the three-game set could prompt management to pull the trigger on trading David Price and even Ben Zobrist.
Owner Stuart Sternberg and executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman have said they'll use the break to discuss moves that could be made prior to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
They'll obviously try to determine the status of their team, which for them, is in an unbelievably weak division.
As Tampa Bay suddenly came to life from being in last place 15 games back on June 10 and reducing the deficit to nine games, trading Price or anyone else was put on hold.
The Rays' spurt to respectability if nothing else delayed decisions regarding Price, et al. If after the Toronto games it appears only a miracle could propel them to meaningful games in September, that will change.
Should management decide the cause is lost, the players will get the message that the season is truly lost.
"People had a full expectation for the month of July that we were going to do some relatively dramatic things at the end of the month with some players, both for money purposes and what not, and none of that happened," Sternberg told MLB.com's Bill Chastain earlier this month.
"We made some decisions then. A lot now will depend on how the team is playing, what's happening around us -- what other teams are looking to do to improve or even something we can do to improve. We could go the other way in a couple of weeks and say, 'What are we missing?' "
And then, he added: "Part of the opportunity we have for success is David's performance. ... We really are taking it a day and a week at a time to see where we stand."
Price, coveted by a myriad of teams hopeful of postseason berths, has said, "If we continue to play good baseball the way we have and continue to win, I feel like we have a shot, so I think that would lessen my chances of getting traded.
"We have great owners. They run this to the best of their ability and they've done it extremely well. They've put us in a position to win, whether they kept guys or traded guys."
Wednesday night's ninth-inning, 5-4 loss to Kansas City was a devastating blow to the inspired comeback that began after the low point on June 10. The jarring setback, only the third in Tampa Bay's last 12 games, ended its string of three consecutive series victories.
The loss, which came with two outs in the ninth inning when All-Star catcher Salvador Perez blasted a three-run homer off rookie reliever Kirby Yates, kept the Rays from gaining a game on leaders Baltimore and Toronto. Both lost Wednesday.
The American League East is so weak that I believe it might take only 88 games to win it. The two AL Wild Cards are likely to come from the West, so for Tampa Bay to return to the postseason, it's going to take a first-place finish.
To reach 88 victories, the Rays must go 46-22 in their final 68 games.
At this stage of the season in 2006, the Twins were 11 games back and won the AL Central; the 2012 A's were nine games out and won the AL West.
Manager Joe Maddon has been stressing for weeks the key is winning each series. Coughing up a 4-2 lead and losing two of three to the Royals was a huge step backward.
That's makes the Toronto series crucial. The Blue Jays have won five of the seven games against the Rays, including a three-game series sweep in late May.
Maddon, a day-at-a-time, game-at-a-time manager, agrees few series have been so important.
"You're right, it's an important weekend," he told me. "I've often talked about not applying more weight to any particular game, but I've already said right now we have to play July like it's September.
"Going into this weekend, the goal is to win the series. Anything less than that isn't necessarily devastating, but being able to carry that [winning the series] into the break would be great.
"If we can keep this mental edge of winning series when we get to the middle of August, the record is going to look OK. We're going to be in a position based on what everybody else does."
Maddon believes there will be what he calls a "trickle-down, with people [teams] coming back to us. To win the Toronto series would be awesome. To lose it wouldn't be devastating."
Tampa Bay completed a 9-2 road trip, 11 games in 10 days, then returned to Tropicana Field for Kansas City.
James Shields blew his former teammates away, 6-0, on Monday, the Rays squeezed out a 4-3 win the next night and were stunned Wednesday.
They welcomed a day off Thursday, but the sour taste of being knocked down in the ninth inning with just two outs to go and losing the series, has to linger.
"The off-day is coming at the perfect time," argued Maddon. "We can put this [the loss] in the disposal and come back out on Friday and play well over the weekend."
Which even in July could be a defining series/weekend for the Rays.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.