The Baltimore Orioles are returning the playoffs for the first time since 1997, but aren't about to settle for a wild-card berth with the AL East title still very much within their grasp.
Baltimore opens a three-game road series against the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night, hoping to at least maintain a share of the division lead.
Following their last playoff berth in 1997, the Orioles endured 14 consecutive losing seasons, including six straight 90-loss campaigns. They ended the drought Sunday, earning at least a wild card with a 6-3 win over Boston coupled with Texas' win over the Los Angeles Angels in the second game of a doubleheader.
Behind their young talent, the Orioles (92-67) have gone from division afterthought to a very unlikely potential division winner. They are tied with New York, which hosts Boston this week, for first place in the AL East."I think everybody knows where the finish line is, and we're not there," manager Buck Showalter said."There are steps to it. One is assuring yourself of getting a chair at the dance. And then we'd like to figure out a way to play some games at our park in front of our fans. It's in our court."
Chris Davis has been outstanding down the stretch for Baltimore, which went 19-9 in September after an 18-9 August. He's homered in four straight games, with five during that stretch and a career-high 31 this season. He's batting .469 (15 for 32) with 10 RBIs during a nine-game hitting streak.
Unlike Davis and the Orioles, the Rays (88-71) do need help if they are to make the playoffs for a third straight year. They are three games behind Oakland for the second wild card and are tied with the Angels. With a loss or win by the A's, they would be eliminated from contention.
Tampa Bay will try to keep things going after it took three of four from the Chicago White Sox, winning 6-2 Sunday behind David Price 's 20th win and two homers from B.J. Upton.
"It's always about maintaining a slight mathematical chance. We were in the same boat last year," said manager Joe Maddon, whose team has won 10 of 11. "It could become a little bit better with some cooperation, but either way we just have to go home and play our game."
The Rays have averaged 6.8 runs during that 11-game span, led by Jeff Keppinger , who is hitting .425 (17 for 40) with three homers in that stretch.
Keppinger is hitting .250 (11 for 44) in the season series against the Orioles, although he is 4 for 8 against scheduled starter Wei-Yin Chen (12-10, 4.11 ERA).
Chen is 0-3 with a 5.14 ERA in his last six starts. He allowed five runs and nine hits - two of them homers - over five innings in a 9-5 loss to Toronto last Monday.
The left-hander is 1-2 against the Rays this year despite a respectable 3.38 ERA. The Orioles have won his last two starts against them. He allowed two runs and struck out seven in 7 1-3 innings of a 3-2, 14-inning victory Sept. 13.
Alex Cobb (10-9, 4.18) gets the ball for Tampa Bay hoping to continue his team's excellent run of starting pitching. Rays' starters are 7-1 with a 2.32 ERA in the past 11 games.
The right-hander gave up one run and three hits in five innings of a 4-2 win over Boston on Wednesday, needing 91 pitches to get through that outing.
Cobb will try to be more efficient Monday, but he only lasted 4 2-3 innings against the Orioles on Sept. 12, allowing two runs and seven hits before leaving without a decision in a 3-2 loss.
|September 29, 2012||Oliver Drake||60-Day DL||Right shoulder tendinitis|
|September 23, 2012||Randy Wolf||60-Day DL||Torn UCL, left elbow - out for season|
|September 11, 2012||Jason Hammel||Day-to-Day||Left game - right knee injury|
|September 09, 2012||Nick Markakis||Day-to-Day||Broken left thumb|
|September 02, 2012||Chris Tillman||Day-to-Day||Left game - stiff right elbow|
|August 22, 2012||Matt Wieters||Day-to-Day||Left game - right shoulder contusion|
|Tampa Bay Rays|
|September 25, 2012||Jose Molina||Day-to-Day||Strained right quad|
|September 11, 2012||Ryan Roberts||Day-to-Day||Left game - strained left forearm|
|September 08, 2012||Desmond Jennings||Day-to-Day||Lower back stiffness|
|September 07, 2012||David Price||Day-to-Day||Left shoulder soreness|
|August 31, 2012||Sean Rodriguez||15-Day DL||Fractured right hand|
|August 31, 2012||Sean Rodriguez||15-Day DL||Fractured right hand|
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) -- Bad news was waiting for Joe Maddon in the morning.
The Tampa Bay Rays ' manager said he planned to hit the sack and sleep "like a baby" on Monday night, rather than stay up to see whether his team got the help it needed to remain in the playoff race.
No such luck.
Tampa Bay beat the Baltimore Orioles 5-3 for its 11th victory in 12 games, an impressive stretch that kept the Rays in the hunt for the second AL wild card - until Oakland beat Texas 4-3 later Monday night.
Baltimore already is assured of being in the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, but still has its sights on outlasting the Yankees for the AL East title. The Orioles fell a game out of first place behind New York when the Yankees beat Boston.
"We've played 12 playoff games and we've won 11 of them," said Maddon, whose team has outscored opponents 80-31 during the surge. "I just love the way our guys are going about their business."
Alex Cobb allowed two hits over seven innings, Ben Zobrist hit his 20th homer and Chris Giminez had a two-run double off Wei-Yin Chen as the Rays pulled away from a 1-all tie in the seventh.
Cobb (11-9) yielded a fourth-inning single to J.J. Hardy and an opposite-field solo homer to Matt Wieters that tied it in the seventh.
Chris Davis homered for the fifth straight game for Baltimore, a two-run shot off Kyle Farnsworth that trimmed Baltimore's deficit to 5-3 in the ninth.
Fernando Rodney gave up singles to Adam Jones and Wieters to put the potential tying runs on base. The Rays closer struck out Jim Thome and Mark Reynolds before getting Endy Chavez to hit a grounder back to mound to end the game. It was Rodney's 47th save in 49 opportunities.
"We didn't take care of our business. We lost," Jones said. "When it comes to the Yankees, we can't control them. We can't control if they win or lose."
The Orioles arrived in St. Petersburg for the season-ending series later than expected Sunday night after their plane had to divert to Jacksonville because of a fire in the galley.
They clinched at least a wild-card berth when the Los Angeles Angels lost the second game of a doubleheader to the Texas Rangers late Sunday, and manager Buck Showalter, coaches and players celebrated by having a short meeting and toasting the accomplishment at the team hotel.
"We've clinched a spot, but we've got an opportunity to win the East. That's big," Jones said before the game. "You get to put up a banner at Camden Yards. It speaks something about the team. It means you finished ahead of the Yankees and Boston and Tampa Bay, everybody."
Cobb retired 10 in a row before Hardy singled between shortstop and third base for Baltimore's first hit. The 24-year-old right-hander walked Jim Thome with one out in the fifth and Nate McLouth with one out in the sixth. McLouth stole second, but was stranded when J.J. Hardy grounded to shortstop and Chris Davis took a called third strike.
Wieters' career-high 23rd homer cleared the short wall in the left-field corner known as 162 Landing, the spot where Evan Longoria hit the 12th-inning homer that the sent the Rays to the playoffs on the final night of last season.
"It is frustrating when it's out of your hands, but we put ourselves in that position. We could have held our own destiny," Cobb said. "Even coming into the last road trip we had that chance, but we let a couple slip that we wish we could have had back. But we're doing all we can now with what we have."
While Maddon was hoping for another dramatic finish, the manager said he wouldn't fret if the Rays fell short of earning their fourth playoff berth in five seasons.
"Honestly, it just is what it is. We had opportunities early in the year to win more games, and we did not. But so did everybody else," he said.
"Everybody else is going to be bemoaning the same points if they don't get there at this juncture. So for me, it's about staying right here, keeping the blinders on. It's about moving it forward, organizationally speaking."
NOTES: Chen, who is 0-4 in seven starts since his last win Aug. 19, allowed four runs - three unearned - and six hits in 6 2-3 innings. ... Zobrist joined B.J. Upton as the only Rays with at least 20 homers. Zobrist has driven in 21 runs in 28 games since the start of September. ... Baltimore RHP Jason Hammel (sore right knee) threw five innings in the Florida instructional league and could be available to pitch for the Orioles late this week. ... Orioles RF Nick Markakis (broken left thumb) will have surgically inserted pins removed in a week.