DETROIT -- If you're the Tampa Bay Rays, go ahead and hope.
Hope because you have played better over the past 24 days. And hope because this is parity's payoff. Nobody else in the American League East is going to romp off into the sunset with this division race.
Three weeks ago, the question surrounding the Rays was when and where they were going to trade David Price? Now, the Rays have earned themselves a more pleasant question: Can these guys actually get back in the race?
If they go into another tailspin, the Price question will return in a hurry. But for the moment, the answer to the second question is: "If they keep playing like this, of course they can."
The Rays hit bottom on June 10 when they were 24-42, 15 games off the pace in the AL East. Injuries had damaged the starting rotation and the lineup, but the Rays had also been missing the timely hitting and opportunistic offense that had characterized their years of success.
Since then, though, they have gone 15-8. In their last two series against division opponents they have won three of four from the Orioles and swept the Yankees in a three-game series.
Then they came to Comerica Park, which is a tough place to get well, particularly against a Detroit team that has won 12 of its last 14. The Rays saw very little go well Thursday night in an 8-1 loss.
But they bounced back in the July Fourth contest, winning, 6-3. Particularly encouraging was the work of reliever Brad Boxberger, who came into a bases-loaded, no-out, situation in a 5-2 game in the sixth. Boxberger got a double-play grounder and a strikeout, and Detroit's best shot ended with the Rays leading, 5-3.
"Boxberger has done that all year for us," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's the right guy to have in that moment."
And the Rays' offense, missing in the timely hitting department earlier in the season, here chipped away persistently, scoring in five separate innings. The Rays scored their final run in the seventh on a double and two groundouts.
"I love that, we have to be able to do that," Maddon said. "You have to be able to score runs with outs. You have to have productive at-bats. We're not just going to bludgeon you. We're not that group. We have to do the little things well, and we've been doing better at that, but as we continue to improve, we have to win those really close, one-run games. "
It's tough to try to keep a resurgence going against the Tigers. They have the second-best record in the AL. But if there is a time for optimism for the Rays, this is it.
"We're playing them at the right time, from our perspective," Maddon said of the Tiger series. "We're playing a lot better. I said the same thing in part for the Baltimore series. Baltimore had their way with us based on the fact that we don't score runs on their pitchers, but we did a better job versus them. And we did pitch well against a Baltimore lineup that's a very, very good lineup, also.
"We're playing our way through this thing. We're building, we're playing better, but we haven't played our best baseball yet. I really believe that and that's a part of it that I'm really encouraged by. Guys are just finding their way. You're seeing more consistency out of a lot of guys. And furthermore, the bottom of the batting order has really done a lot of damage for us over the last several games."
How do the Rays recover? Even now, they are 39-50, nine games back in the AL East. On the plus side, they are playing better. And there does not appear to be a team in the division capable of a truly dominant performance.
"The goal has been to win series," Maddon said. "As long as we continue to win series on a consistent basis, it's all going to come to fruition. This is another four-game series which makes it a little bit tougher, but then we go back to three against Kansas City and three against the Blue Jays.
"The original goal was to get back to 50 and 50. We'd have to get real hot to do that. Now, the more realistic thing is to continue to win series and then be patient, be patient and all of a sudden you look up and you're in pretty good position. Part of the reason I'm encouraged by that is that with the parity in the game today, nobody's going to run away with the whole thing. In a typical year from the last several years it might be hard to believe in that thought, but I believe that's the case this year."
The Rays, after a sub-standard two months to start this season, have played well enough to give themselves reasons to hope, reasons that are good enough to be real.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less