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Can the injury-ravaged Rays survive in a playoff race?

Can the injury-ravaged Rays survive in a playoff race?

Can the injury-ravaged Rays survive in a playoff race?

The AL East-leading Tampa Bay Rays have been the story of this baseball season and they already have surpassed their franchise record for wins. But the team will head into the stretch run of the season without its two best all-around position players.

Evan Longoria, an All-Star and a lock to be team MVP and AL Rookie of the Year, is on the 15-day disabled list with a fractured wrist. He is expected to be out until at least Sept. 1, which should cost him about 16 games.

Longoria leads the team with 22 homers, 71 RBIs and a .533 slugging percentage. And he’s a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman.

Also out is outfielder and two-time All-Star Carl Crawford (.273 average, 8 homers, 57 RBIs, 25 steals), who will have surgery on an injured tendon at the base of his right middle finger on Thursday. He is expected to be out 6-8 weeks and the Rays’ final regular-season series is six weeks from Thursday.

Crawford’s offensive numbers are down compared to previous seasons, but he’s also a Gold Glove-caliber left fielder and had gotten hot lately, hitting nearly .350 with five triples in the past two weeks. He is also a four-time American League stolen base leader and the Rays’ all-time leader in hits, at-bats, runs, stolen bases and triples.

The Rays should be able to make up for Crawford’s offense with a platoon of Eric Hinske and Justin Ruggiano, who was just brought up from Triple-A. At third base, Willy Aybar, Tampa Bay’s Opening Day starter, will get most of the time while Longoria is away. But that’s a severe downgrade.

Don’t expect a big trade, as the Rays are at the bottom of the league in terms of waiver priority, and the franchise can’t afford just a salary dump by another team. Tampa Bay’s front office has said free agent Barry Bonds isn’t an option, either.

Tampa Bay enters the weekend with a three-game lead over Boston in the AL East; the Red Sox lead the wild card by 2 1/2 games. The question is whether Tampa Bay, now playing its first meaningful games ever this late in the year, can hold off Boston for the division title or the likely AL Central runner-up for the wild-card spot.

Starting Friday, the Rays’ next 12 games are against teams currently over .500, including three against the team with the best record in the majors, the L.A. Angels. The Rays will need to count on their pitching staff, which is fourth in MLB with a 3.76 ERA, to get them through that stretch. However, they just watched closer Troy Percival leave Thursday’s game with a sprained knee, so they’ll need to find a way to fill that hole.

And Tampa Bay is expected to strengthen its staff at some point by calling up phenom David Price, the 2007 No. 1 overall pick.

The key for Tampa Bay is to maintain while Longoria is out through August. The Rays will need their MVP in September, when they start the month with 16 of their first 19 games against the Red Sox, Yankees or Twins.

Currently the Rays are +325 to win the AL pennant and +550 to win the World Series. Look for those odds to rise at the first sign of a losing streak minus Crawford and Longoria.

In early July, Boston’s David Ortiz said he thought the Rays’ inexperience probably would catch up to them and that the battle-tested Red Sox and Yankees would take over. Now we really will see if that’s the case.

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