MLB.com Columnist

Hal Bodley

Rays, Orioles hold key to one Wild Card

Bodley: Rays, Orioles hold key to one Wild Card

ST. PETERSBURG -- The surprising Orioles are trying to return to the postseason for the first time since 1997, but here come the Tampa Bay Rays.

Both Baltimore manager Buck Showalter and Rays skipper Joe Maddon are attempting to play down the importance of this weekend series at Tropicana Field. Nobody's listening.

Sure, 56 games remain for each, and September baseball is crucial to any pennant race, yet how these two AL East teams fare against each other down the stretch should go a long way to determining at least one of the American League's two Wild Cards.

Tampa Bay has experience, while most Orioles are tasting the inescapable pressure for the first time.

The Rays used strong pitching by lefty Matt Moore and home runs by B.J. Upton (the 100th of his career) and Desmond Jennings on Friday night to sting the Orioles, 2-0, and send a strong message.

"I refrain from [calling this] a big series; I think every game you play is the biggest game of the year," said Maddon. "So, if our guys can just approach it like that, which I think they do, at the end of the series, hopefully we'll win two out of three."

By winning Friday night, the Rays' fourth shutout in their last five victories, they moved ahead of Baltimore into second place. At 24-18, they have the AL East's best interdivisional record.

Tampa Bay and Detroit, both 56-50, trail the Angels by a half-game for the second AL Wild Card. Oakland owns the best record among second-place clubs and thus leads for the first Wild Card. After this weekend's three-game set, the Orioles and Rays meet six more times, including a season-ending series in St. Petersburg.

"I'm not just trying to throw out Psychology 101, but it was about tonight," said Maddon. "Now, it's going to be about tomorrow night. Truly, I just want our guys to attack the day, that's it. I don't want them to be overjoyed about what happened today and not worry about tomorrow.

"Anxiety lives in the future; just worry about today. If they can do that they have a pretty good chance to pile up some significant wins over the next two months."

In reality, Showalter's managerial wizardry has kept the young Orioles, who haven't had a winning season since '97, in contention. When you look at the team stats, it's difficult to believe they've played so well this year.

For example, in their 106 games they've had 35 in which they did not get a hit with runners in scoring position. Friday night, they stranded 10 runners, including the first inning when Mark Reynolds was called out on strikes for the third out with the bases loaded.

"We did a lot of good things to get people out there [on base]," said Showalter. "You've got to knock them in and take advantage."

Few of the Orioles players have played meaningful games in the later weeks of a season.

Victories in April and May count just as much, but winning in August and September is more difficult.

"We have to do a lot of good things in the next month to make that [postseason] happen," said Showalter. "We try not to get too day to day about it. There are so many things. I think the more you draw attention to it [pressure of a pennant chase] it can work in reverse order. I just hope all our guys get the experience."

The Rays arguably have the best pitching staff in the AL since the All-Star break. Their pitchers lead the Major Leagues with a 2.34 earned run average, strikeouts (208) and lowest opponents' batting average (.202).

"Obviously, Matt Moore has a really good arm, and you knew that runs tonight were going to be at a premium," said Showalter. He added, "You like our chances, though, if you knew we would only give up two runs tonight, but they pitched real well. That's why they're able to do the things they do. They're very deep in their pitching."

Regardless, Showalter refuses to put added emphasis on this series.

"I don't think our guys are really thinking about it. It's never good to be playing Tampa, what with their starting pitching," he said. "There are so many teams involved in this [Wild Card race]. I think to put added focus on one series is not good because we think we can make a run at New York [for the division title]. "

Before arriving in Florida, the Orioles took two of three games from the first-place Yankees.

"Our guys were frustrated losing the last day in New York," Buck said. "Like I said, we think we can make a run at the Yankees. I just don't think we can put any added emphasis on this series."

The Rays, who have staggered at times this season, picked up momentum when they won six of nine games on their just-completed road trip.

Even though Maddon refuses to put extra weight on a specific series, he said "I like the idea that we're playing these guys now. We've had a pretty good run of playing teams that are ahead of us which I think is going to bring out the best in us all the time. I like the idea [that] we're playing teams in contention."

He said each game is and should be the biggest game of the year.

So, the Rays won their biggest game of the year Friday night.

Saturday, they play the biggest game of the season.

And following that comes Sunday.

It's all about a pennant race with two teams desperately trying to make it to the postseason.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.