Rays have stage set for another thrilling playoff push

Rays have stage set for another thrilling playoff push

ST. PETERSBURG -- Carlos Pena looks toward the season's final two months and sees magic.

"The stage is set, in my opinion, for good things to happen," Pena said.

The Rays' first baseman still believes the fairy tale that began in 2008 has yet to be completed.

"I think we would like to put ourselves in the right position to receive what's coming," Pena said. "It's a funny thing because it's something you can't put a finger on. It's not tangible. It's more of an attitude. It's more of a way of thinking. It's more just a way of being. And I think if we achieve that type of state, we're right where we want to be."

57 games remain on the Rays' schedule, so the team needs to continue playing as it did on its just-completed road trip and turn that success into a roll. In April, Tampa Bay played like the team many forecast to win the World Series. At that juncture, the club appeared to indeed have the magic of which Pena talked.

Broken mirrors, black cats and walking under ladders could summarize the Rays' season after their grand opening month.

Most of the team's bad luck has been delivered in the form of injuries, beginning with the granddaddy of them all -- Evan Longoria's partially torn left hamstring. Pitching and defense is Tampa Bay's mantra. When Longoria is in the lineup, the team has pitching, defense and a much-improved offense.

With Longoria, the team was 15-8. Without Longoria, it is 40-42.

But it hasn't been just Longoria, as other players have gone on and off the disabled list as well. That inconsistency in the lineup affected the team not only on offense, but also on defense.

Nevertheless, the Rays have managed to remain in the hunt. Through 105 games this season, they are 55-50, which is the same mark they had after 105 games in 2011.

Manager Joe Maddon is the picture of optimism, the likes of which allow him to see the sunshine through Tropicana Field's teflon roof. But when pressed for what it's going to take for this year's team to make a run, the face of Tampa Bay's manager went sober.

"The thing that has to happen is we have to be a more consistent offensive club," Maddon said. "That's it."

While more offense is needed, getting more offense out of this year's group is not something that should be considered a pipe dream. Maddon noted that the players fueling this year's offense have a "track record of performance that indicates something better is going to happen."

"We just have to have our guys in house hit like they're capable of," Maddon said. "I really believe that."

On paper, the argument can be made that the Rays have a better-than-average chance to reach the playoffs. They have managed to survive while key players were gone, and those players should be back soon. They have solid starting pitching that seems to be getting even stronger lately. They are young, enabling them to better handle the physical demands of a 162-game season.

Perhaps the most compelling reason comes in the fact that nobody on the team is having a career year offensively. In fact, few are even producing at their career-average level. That could even out down the stretch. The defense has already improved since the beginning of the second half.

And, finally, there is an extra playoff spot to be had.

"In addition to being hurt, we've probably underachieved compared to what people expected of us," said outfielder Sam Fuld, who just recently returned from the disabled list. "I think we're all aware of the fact we can expect more, not only from the guys coming back from injury, but the guys who have been healthy who have not had quite the years they had hoped for.

"The other different dynamic is the actual Wild Card spot gives us a little more optimism, like we have a better chance of getting to the playoffs. I think that the opportunity to win the division might seem a little more far-fetched at this point. Just the way last year played out, it gives us a ton of confidence this year knowing that we're capable of going on a run and making an incredible comeback."

While the Rays may look good on paper at 1 1/2 games out of the second Wild Card, the job still has to get done on the field, and momentum is not something easily found.

"I don't ever remember before having as much adversity as our team has faced this year," Ben Zobrist said. "So I think the task is greater than it's been in the past, regardless of what we felt at the end of the season."

Tampa Bay went 18-10 in August and 17-10 in September to earn a playoff spot on the final day of last season. Save for the month of April, this year's team has not given any indication of being able to sustain that kind of winning pace. Also unlike last year, it's doubtful the Rays will get as much help as they received last September from the Red Sox, who went 7-20 in the final month of the season.

"We can't rely on somebody collapsing like last year," Fuld said. "That's being a little bit too hopeful. We have to take matters in our own hands."

Nevertheless, Fuld believes the Rays will reach the postseason party.

"Yes, no doubt about it," Fuld said. "I think we're all a little disappointed we're in the situation we're in now, but we're still optimistic that we can get this thing done."

Ultimately, Maddon believes the Rays will get a major boost because of the character and makeup of his club, which has found a way to reach the postseason three of the past four seasons.

"We expect to be in the playoffs this year," Maddon said. "And I think our guys know how to handle the moment. Whereas, when you're new on the block and you have not done it before, there's a difference. You don't have the same expectations we have that are, 'We belong there, we should be there, we're going to be there,' as opposed to, 'We're hoping to be there.' I have a lot of faith in our guys that they're going to come through."

Maddon, like his first baseman, also believes in the magic.

"We had it last year and we expect to have it again this year," Maddon said.

The twinkle in Maddon's eye said he wasn't blowing smoke.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.