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The Week Ahead: Last chance for Rays

Sep 7, 2009, 1:19 AM EDT

rays_090906.jpgWith apologies to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Tampa Bay Rays were the story of the postseason last year. They were the plucky little low-budget engine that could, discarding all comers — including mighty Boston in the ALCS — until meeting up with the eventual champions in the World Series.

They’ve still got a nice ballclub, entering the week at 72-64 and possessing the best team ERA in the AL East. But alas it hasn’t been enough to keep up with the division bullies known as the Yankees and Red Sox.

(Go here for a nice breakdown of all the playoff races)

If ever there was a week to rediscover the magic of 2008, this would be it. They can forget about catching the Yankees, who they trail by 14 1/2 games. And sitting 7 games behind the AL wild-card leading Red Sox, things are looking bleak. Also in the mix are the Texas Rangers, who are three games behind Boston, and four ahead of Tampa Bay.

But with all of that considered, the Rays still have a chance to make a move, but they have to do it now. They head to the Bronx for a four-game set against the Yankees, including a double-header on Monday. Then over the weekend they’ll be in Fenway for three games against the Red Sox.

A mediocre showing won’t be enough. They have to get hot. They have to go on a streak and gain some ground.

After this week, the Rays will only have 19 games left to play this season. If they’re still sitting 7 games back in the wild card chase, they can start making fishing plans. The Trop won’t be rocking in October.

It won’t be terribly surprising if the Rays fail, but it will still be a little sad. Everyone likes to root for an underdog. But the Rays’ run in the spotlight might be just about finished. Always facing budget issues, the Rays will have to make decisions on Carl Crawford ($10 million option), Akinori Iwamura ($4.35 million option) and Jason Bartlett (arbitration), among others this offseason.

Is the Rays’ dream over? Anything less than a huge week could prove it so.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Rays at Yankees, Sept. 7-9:
Garza vs. Sabathia kicks off this key series, which begins with a doubleheader on Monday. The Rays are 5-6 against the Yankees this season.

Mariners at Angels, Sept. 8-10: The Mariners have made a nice run this season, but any serious thoughts at contending could end this week. After this series, Seattle heads to Texas.

Mets at Phillies, Sept. 11-13: Will the Mets collapse again late this season and surrender the division to the Phillies? Oh wait, that was last year. Yeah, I wouldn’t expect too much trash talk this time around.

Dodgers at Giants, Sept. 11-13: The Giants may be too far behind to catch L.A. But there’s still the wild-card chase, making this a huge series in San Francisco.

Rays at Red Sox, Sept. 11-13: It’s sort of become a mini-rivalry over the last couple seasons, but while the Rays remain a winning team, they remain a distant third in the AL East. Is there time to rediscover the magic?

ON THE TUBE
Wednesday, 7:05 p.m.: Rays at Yankees (ESPN)
Wednesday, 10:10 p.m.: Dodgers at Diamondbacks (ESPN)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: White Sox at Angels (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.:  Mets at Phillies (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.:  Braves at Cardinals (FOX)
Sunday, 4 p.m.: Dodgers at Giants (TBS)
Sunday, 8:05 p.m.: Mets at Phillies (ESPN)
*Check local listings

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If you Twitter, you can find me there at @Bharks.

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