Yankees

Wild Finish: Rays-Red Sox Playoff Race Hinges On Yankees

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Jon Lester (credit: Jim Rogash/Getty Images), Joe Girardi (credit: J. Meric/Getty Images), David Price (credit: J. Meric/Getty Images)

Jon Lester (credit: Jim Rogash/Getty Images), Joe Girardi (credit: J. Meric/Getty Images), David Price (credit: J. Meric/Getty Images)

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NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) – Sure, the Yankees have locked down the AL East and home-field advantage. But they’re still gunning to win game No. 162.

Not if the Tampa Bay Rays, in the heat of a wild-card race, have anything to say about it.

With their postseason hopes down to the last day of the regular season and maybe beyond, the Rays look to match a season high with a fifth consecutive victory Wednesday night against New York at Tropicana Field.

Tampa Bay (90-71) defeated the Bombers 5-3 on Tuesday to continue its improbable run by winning for the 16th time in 24 games. After trailing Boston by nine games in the wild-card race Sept. 2, the Rays caught the struggling Red Sox on Monday.

They remain tied with Boston, which held on to beat Baltimore 8-7 on Tuesday.

“We don’t feel like we have anything to lose. We’ve had a great run,” Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “We’re hoping to cap it with a playoff berth.”

But despite squandering their big lead with a miserable September, the Red Sox are excited about still having a chance to make the postseason on the final day.

“I think it’s really good for baseball, not so good for my stomach,” manager Terry Francona said. “It’s exciting. If you don’t want to show up (Wednesday) and play, you’ve got no pulse. My goodness, I can’t remember being that nervous in a long time. Go back to the hotel and not sleep, and then show up and see what we can do.”

Giving the ball to Jon Lester (15-9, 3.49 ERA) against the Orioles usually eases Francona’s nerves.

Lester, however, hasn’t come close to being effective his last three trips to the mound, losing each behind a 10.54 ERA. He was pounded by the Yankees on Saturday, surrendering a season-high eight runs and eight hits in 2 2-3 innings of a 9-1 defeat.

“I stink,” Lester told the team’s official website. “If I had the answer, it wouldn’t happen. You go 32-0 every year if you had the answer of why you stink sometimes. It just happens. It’s part of baseball. It’s just one of those deals. I’ve been getting my (butt) kicked lately. It’s not a good time to have this stretch.”

If the teams are tied after Wednesday’s games, the Rays would host a one-game playoff against the Red Sox on Thursday afternoon.

“Catching Boston was a big thing, but we still haven’t accomplished what we set out to do from the beginning of spring training,” said Rays designated hitter Johnny Damon, who moved past Lou Gehrig into sole possession of 57th place on the all-time hits list with 2,722.

New York (97-64), which will have home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs, plans to play most – if not all – of its regulars Wednesday as it tries to avoid ending the regular season with four consecutive losses.

“We’re professionals,” said catcher Russell Martin, who hit his 18th homer but also hit into a triple play Tuesday. “We try to win every game. We want to play these guys tough.”

However, that tenacity may not extend to the pitching staff as manager Joe Girardi has yet to name a starter for the finale. Rookie relievers Andrew Brackman and Dellin Betances are possible candidates to get the nod as the Yankees aim to save their staff for the playoffs.

The Rays hope David Price (12-13, 3.35 ERA) pitches as well Wednesday as he did in a 5-1 win at New York on Aug. 12, when he allowed one run in eight innings. The left-hander is 1-1 with a 4.26 ERA against the Yankees this season.

Price, however, allowed five runs – two earned – in six innings of a 5-1 loss to Toronto on Friday to fall to 0-5 with a 3.55 ERA in seven starts at Tropicana Field since beating Boston there July 15.

“I always have the utmost confidence when David pitches. I really do,” Maddon said. “Every time he pitches we feel like we’re going to win that night. I know some things have not necessarily gone his way this year, but in a very tight moment, you always feel very comfortable about how David will pitch.”

Matt Joyce hit a three-run go-ahead homer in the seventh inning and Zobrist added a two-run shot Tuesday as the Rays rallied to win after blowing an early two-run lead. Zobrist is 8 for 21 with four homers and seven RBIs in his last six games – three of them against New York.

It’s uncertain if Tampa Bay will have first baseman Casey Kotchman in the lineup after he was taken to a hospital Tuesday as a precaution after experiencing tightness in his chest. Kotchman is batting a team-leading .305.

Yankee outfielder Curtis Granderson is an MVP candidate with 41 homers and 119 RBIs, but he is 0 for 17 in his last four games and 5 for 28 with two homers and 10 strikeouts versus Price.

Who will take the AL wild card? Make your prediction in the comments below…

(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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