Twins and Rays take it one day at a time

April baseball is about hope and false optimism. May and June are about the grind, about staying in the race and avoiding injuries, praying the rookies are for real and the sophomores are slump-proof.

And July? If your team is still in the race, this is when the season starts to get stressful, when you sweat with every pitch. It's when you check the starting pitchers for tomorrow and the next day and the series after that. If your team is on the fringes of the pennant race, this is when you live and die with every game, and you don’t want to hear anyone say, “It’s not really a must-win game, you know.” Because you know it is. You know that in baseball, every game can matter.

On Thursday night, Rays fans lived a little and Twins fans suffered a bit of death.

I spent the night watching two ballgames: the Yankees versus the Rays on TV and the Tigers taking on the Twins on the computer. The Rays and Twins faced tough assignments, going up against two guys you probably know a little about -- CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander, respectively. But the Rays and Twins were starting their own hot pitchers, James Shields and Carl Pavano.

The Rays struck in the bottom of the first, with Evan Longoria swatting a long home run to left field. If you’re a Rays fan, this is clearly a sign that Longoria will finally start mashing. This is what you believe. He’d go 2-for-2 with two walks Thursday -- a sign, a hot streak about to begin. You know he’s due.

For Twins fans, you knew it was going to be a tough night against Verlander when Michael Cuddyer tripled leading off the bottom of the second, only to be stranded after the Tigers' ace fanned Jim Thome and Danny Valencia and got Delmon Young to ground out. Thome’s first two at-bats showed Verlander’s mastery in 2012. After Thome fouled off a 3-2 pitch in that first at-bat, Verlander blew him away with high-octane heat. In their next confrontation, Verlander threw Thome three straight breaking balls and then blew him away with a 99 mph fastball on the outside corner. Ted Williams couldn’t have hit that pitch.

Shields has been brilliant all season and was again this night, scattering six hits and three walks while not allowing a run until Robinson Cano’s two-out double in the eighth. The Rays won 2-1, sweet revenge for Shields, who lost 1-0 to Sabathia on July 10 at Yankee Stadium.

Dyin’ and livin’. That’s July baseball.

* * * *

The Rays split their hard-fought series with the Yankees, remaining 5 1/2 games behind them in the wild-card race. Three wins would have been better, maybe a necessity. The fact is, catching the Yankees will be difficult. The Yankees have a run differential of plus-117; the Rays are at plus-32. The Rays need better production at shortstop (their shortstops are hitting a combined .203 with a .249 on-base percentage) and catcher (hitting a combined .199 with a .287 OBP). Unfortunately, those are the two positions most difficult to upgrade at the trade deadline.

The Rays' bullpen, entirely rebuilt in the offseason, has been surprisingly solid, and Kyle Farnsworth picked up his 19th save in 22 opportunities Thursday. But it has been showing some cracks lately, and its 3.68 ERA is 10th best in the American League.

They have a difficult task, but don’t count them out; 20 of their next 23 games are against the Royals, A’s and Mariners. But they still have 19 games against the Yankees and Red Sox, including 10 of their final 13.

For the Twins, this week features eight games against the Indians and Tigers. They lost a doubleheader Monday to Cleveland but won the next two before dropping the series opener against Detroit. They’re six games behind the Tigers, in fourth place. The division is weak. Can they do it?

Joe Mauer is finally hitting, 16-for-31 since the All-Star break. Jason Kubel, out since May 30, returns from the DL on Friday. Denard Span is at Triple-A Rochester, rehabbing from his concussion. Kevin Slowey made a rehab start Sunday. The Twins are hopeful for Justin Morneau returning in mid-August.

Manager Ron Gardenhire will have interesting choices to make. If he wants to maximize the offense, he puts Kubel in right field, moving Michael Cuddyer to either first base (moving Joe Mauer to catcher on an everyday basis) or third base (in place of weak-hitting Danny Valencia). Or he uses Kubel as the DH, with Thome sliding to the bench.

The Twins still need Delmon Young and Tsuyoshi Nishioka to hit and the bullpen to avoid blowing late games. With a return to health of the lineup they expected back in April, the Twins have a chance to win the division. I still believe it’s a long shot -- climbing over three teams is no easy task -- but it is, after all, the AL Central, where the living might be a little dirty, but at least you’re alive and in the race and sweating every game.

As July baseball should make you do.