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It’s true, the Rays are believers

By Nick Cafardo
September 11, 2011

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - They believe they can overtake the Red Sox. They really do.

And whether you’re a Red Sox fan or just a baseball fan, you have to respect the Tampa Bay Rays, and their manager in particular.

Listening to Joe Maddon after last night’s 6-5 victory over the Sox, won on Evan Longoria’s walkoff single in the 11th inning, was like attending a Tony Robbins seminar. You believe you can make a fortune and be the greatest person on earth and achieve anything you want.

And Maddon has his team believing in miracles. The Rays are 4 1/2 games behind the Red Sox in the wild-card race, four out in the loss column. After play on Aug. 7, the Rays were 10 games behind the Yankees for the wild card. Since then they have gone 21-10, 14-5 at home.

They have five more games with Boston, including today’s finale with James Shields opposing Jon Lester.

If the Rays pull off the miracle, my goodness.

We all understand the challenges Tampa Bay faces, the small payroll, the lack of big-name players. We understand they’ve got terrific young pitchers, and one of them, 24-year-old righty Jeremy Hellickson tossed six innings and a quality start last night without his best stuff.

They run out ground balls and make huge defensive plays. The only thing they couldn’t do last night was hit with runners in scoring position. They were 0 for 13 before Longoria’s winning single. But they do so many other things fundamentally well that they can go up against a far superior lineup like Boston’s and win.

They can overcome their closer, Kyle Farnsworth, giving up ninth-inning homers to Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jacoby Ellsbury. Afterward it was learned that Farnsworth hurt his elbow and will be out for a while.

Maddon was ecstatic about the work done by lefty Cesar Ramos and righty Brandon Gomes of Fall River, Mass., as both shut down the Sox at critical moments before Farnsworth’s collapse.

“My point is every one knows they’re going to get utilized here and everyone believes that we can do this,’’ Maddon said. “There’s no question in my mind. We’ve validated the charge the last two days.

“If we can continue this momentum and keep everybody involved and engaged, we are a group that has to do different things in different spots to make everything work. So they come to the ballpark and they know they can play. They know to come prepared.’’

So when Farnsworth blew a 5-3 lead there was no “woe is us’’ mentality. In fact, the Rays got hungrier, tougher.

Leading off the bottom of the 11th, Desmond Jennings tripled to the gap in right-center. B.J. Upton couldn’t get the job done, but again, nobody panicked.

“I just love the involvement,’’ Maddon said. “This is who we are and what we do.’’

When Manny Ramirez was about to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs and decided to retire in April, it left the Rays without a big-name hitter.

Johnny Damon became the regular DH and guys such as Sam Fuld went out there and played to their optimum level.

““How about the play Longo made going to his left? How about the pitching the entire game? How about the base running?’’ Maddon said. “The area we need to get better at is consistency of offense. The effort is there every night, though. I love the hustle.’’

Who wouldn’t?

In an age when hustle is often lacking, that’s one thing the Rays can give you. And the rush they get from beating the Red Sox can’t be understated.

Maddon called Boston’s lineup a “minefield.’’

“I don’t feel bad for them,’’ he said. “Look at their offensive prowess and what they’ve done. It’s tough to feel badly about what’s going on. I know they would not feel sorry for us. But regardless of their maladies, look at that lineup. The biggest struggle they have is that their starters are hurt.’’

He said the Rays thought they could take advantage of Boston’s injuries and the pitching matchups in this series.

When asked if he would describe his team as loose, Maddon said, “Oh yeah, we’re loose all right.’’

They love being the little engine that could.

They love being the underdog.

It suits them. It always has.

“We just want to make this interesting,’’ Longoria said. “We want to give the Red Sox and Yankees, who we play a lot the rest of the way, a run for their money. We don’t try to do too much. We go into every game thinking what we have to do to win. With our pitching, we can hang in games, and if we can get some timely hitting, we can keep doing this.

“It’s a team thing. A complete team thing. We’re not going to think too far ahead. We have to win tomorrow.’’

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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