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.
"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.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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