AL East titans heading in same direction
Yankees, Rays destined to ply their trades in October
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Some teams stagger to the playoffs. Others roar through the stretch like gangbusters sizzling into October baseball.
The Yankees and Rays seem destined to play in this year's postseason, one as American League East champion, the other as the Wild Card. Take your pick.
Yet it seems unlikely either of these juggernauts will be fueled by runaway momentum down the stretch.
They own the best records in the Major Leagues, but I can't see either putting together a long winning streak during the final two-plus weeks of this marathon even with inspiring performances such as Tuesday night's suspenseful 8-7, 10-inning New York victory.
For one thing, the Yankees and Rays face each other five more times -- a match Wednesday night to complete this week's three-game series at Tropicana Field, then four more games at Yankee Stadium beginning Monday.
These teams are so evenly matched, I cannot see either running away from the other.
"When we play the Yankees, it's always an interesting series," said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon. "Look at the record and it's almost identical. We're very similar clubs. Regardless of whom we're playing or where, I always want us to come out and prepare the same way.
"We're going after first place hard. I think when you win the American League East, one part of it is you get home-field advantage. Second, when you can say you won the East, it's very significant for the organization. We're not looking through the rear-view mirror. We're looking through the windshield."
The Rays had vaulted into first place by a half-game with Monday night's dramatic 11-inning, 1-0 triumph made possible by Reid Brignac's walk-off homer.
The Yankees returned the favor Tuesday, watching a 6-0 lead evaporate into a 7-6 Tampa Bay advantage, before tying the game in the sixth and then winning in the 10th with pinch-hitter Jorge Posada's leadoff homer.
And then, in the bottom of the 10th, Rays outfielder Carl Crawford sent the Tropicana Field customers into a frenzied state when he opened the inning with a single against the invincible Mariano Rivera. All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria smashed a high fly that Curtis Granderson hauled in under the shadows of the 404-foot marker in center field.
Moments later, with Matt Joyce batting, the fleet Crawford stole second, his 43rd theft of the year. What followed will have Rays -- and Yankees -- fans talking and debating for quite some time.
Joyce lofted a fly ball to right field that Greg Golson, who entered the game in the ninth, fielded on the run.
Golson then rifled a throw to third baseman Alex Rodriguez that trailed sparks to nail Crawford.
Crawford, who was ejected from Monday night's game, violated one of baseball's cardinal adages: Runners should never make the first or third out at third base.
"I always tell our guys to take positive risks," countered Maddon. "If that ball hits [Crawford] and bounds off him, all of a sudden we score another run. When you're facing Rivera, you take chances."
My point is the Yankees and Rays so determined to keep the other from taking the division and home-field advantage for the first two playoff rounds, they'll be prompted to play games like this the rest of the way.
After 13 games between the two, the Rays hold a 7-6 advantage.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi says this is the most difficult stretch run he's ever endured as a player, coach or manager. Like most of us, Girardi is uncertain how much momentum vs. solid play helps a team once it gets to the postseason.
"We want to win every day, every game," he said. "You've seen teams that have been extremely hot down the stretch [be eliminated] in the first round. You've seen teams that have not played well down the stretch go a long way.
"I think the most important thing is that you're healthy and guys feel good about themselves. There's a confidence factor there. The postseason is a different animal than the regular season."
Ah, yes. The Rays, who have been in first place just 15 of the past 82 games, pushed the Yankees, who'd lost four games in a row, aside Monday night.
But after the latest 21 innings of baseball between these two heavyweights, they're all but even, separated by just a half-game in the ever-present standings.
"This is one of the toughest tests we've had," a drained Girardi said as he sat in his office after the game. "We've had some very disappointing losses."
Posada added, "The way we've been losing, to really pull this one off was important. We came in today, were up 6-0, they tied it and went ahead. But we can do a lot of things. We have a good attitude."
Girardi believes the final month is so difficult because the Yankees must play rapidly improving Baltimore, the four games against Tampa Bay, then a handful of games with Boston and home-run happy Toronto.
"There's no let-up," he said. "This was an important win tonight, but it starts all over again tomorrow."
Posada said the most important thing down the stretch "is pitching. You have to set up the playoff rotation and be ready."
The message both teams are sending is they won't be disappointed if they are unable to win the battle. Their goal is to win a different battle, known as the World Series.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.