The Rays’ sweep of the Red Sox over the weekend brought them to within 3 ½ games of the Boston’s lead in the American League wild card race. (J. Meric/Getty Images)

By surging back into a pennant race they seemed to
have vacated months ago, the Tampa Bay Rays have done more than merely awaken that small
segment of their fan base that still acknowledges
their existence this time of year, or put a Bucky Dent-sized scare into the swooning Boston Red Sox. They have also saved September, baseball’s most important regular season month, from a fate of irrelevancy amid the NFL’s grandiose return.

Until the Rays swept the Red Sox over the weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla., closing to within 31 / 2 games of the Red Sox’
lead in the American League wild card race — Boston increased
it back to four games with a win and a Tampa Bay loss on
Tuesday night — baseball was facing its worst late-season nightmare: a stretch drive nearly devoid of pennant-race
drama. ¶ But suddenly, with just over two weeks left in the

season, there is drama all over the place.

The Red Sox’ untimely collapse — before Tuesday’s win against Toronto they had lost five straight and 10 of their last 13 — has put them, and the Rays, within range of history. The Rays were 81 / 2 games out of a playoff spot on Sept. 1; no team has ever made the playoffs after being more than 71 / 2 games out in September. And no team has ever blown a lead that big in September.

In Boston, those Red Sox fans whose memories reach beyond the World Series titles of the last decade are bracing themselves against flashbacks from 1978, when the team blew a 14-game lead and lost the division title on Dent’s famous homer. Even veteran designated hitter David Ortiz blurted Sunday, “Hell, yeah, you’ve got to panic.”

And hell, yeah, the Rays saw the Ortiz quote. “That was kind of an interesting quote,” said James Shields, the Rays’ veteran right-hander. “But that’s where we want them to be. We want them to be worried about us coming up behind them.”

It isn’t only the AL East that has seen some tightening this month. In the AL West, the Los Angeles Angels, who were seven games behind the Texas Rangers just four weeks ago, were within 31 / 2 heading into a a late game Tuesday in Oakland. (Thanks to Boston’s stumble, the Angels were only six games back in the wild-card race before their late game.)

And in the NL, the Atlanta Braves’ current 4-9 stretch has brought two left-for-dead teams back onto the periphery of the race: the St. Louis Cardinals (41 / 2 behind the Braves) and San Francisco Giants (seven back before their late game against San Diego).

But here is the flip side: At the start of play Tuesday, none of the eight playoff races were tighter than three games, and three of the division races — the NL East (led by the Phillies), NL West (Diamondbacks) and AL Central (Tigers) — featured first-place teams holding leads of at least 81 / 2 games. On this same date last year, four races were separated by 21 / 2 games or less.

According to the Web site — which bases its projections on millions of computerized simulations of the season — the 2011 playoff field is all but set. Of the eight teams leading their divisions or the wild cards at the start of Tuesday’s play, the Red Sox were the most vulnerable — but even they had an 86.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. The Rays’ chances? Only 13.2 percent. The Giants’? Zero-point-eight.

“You can’t have multiple, dramatic pennant races every year,” Commissioner Bud Selig said in a telephone interview, asked about the overall lack of September drama. “You can’t orchestrate it.”

Selig, though, reiterated his support for a second wild card in each league — a concept that is being discussed during the ongoing labor negotiations and that could be implemented in 2012 (though 2013 is more likely). Had the second wild card been put in place for 2011, there would be two additional compelling races, with the Rays leading the Angels by 21 / 2 games in the AL entering Tuesday, and the Cardinals leading the Giants by two games in the NL.

Back in the real world, any hope of a compelling final fortnight rests largely in the hands of the Rays — and the Red Sox. As it happens, they will clash in Boston for four games beginning Thursday, one team full of an underdog’s carefree confidence, the other plagued with pitching injuries and an inescapable feeling that its collar keeps tightening.

“This is our playoffs. If we’re good enough to get through this, we’re good enough to get into the postseason,” Rays veteran Johnny Damon said. “If not, at least we made it interesting.”