Technically speaking, Thursday night's series finale is meaningless for the already-eliminated Yankees, even as it is absolutely pivotal to the American League Wild Card-leading Rays.
But Mariano Rivera doesn't see it that way. Rivera, who will be playing in his final home game at Yankee Stadium, sees it as a chance to thank all the Yankees fans who have supported him since his historic career began in 1995.
"I'm not used to pitching for something that doesn't mean anything," Rivera said. "I wanted to pitch for something that means something. The fans, to me, are special. They are special. I'll be there. I'll be there tomorrow, hopefully, God willing, and there for the fans. They deserve it."
Manager Joe Girardi said there's a "good chance" Rivera will pitch on Thursday, regardless of the score, meaning the legendary closer will exit the home bullpen with "Enter Sandman" blaring one last time.
But the moment will be bittersweet for Rivera, who made a living out of dominating pivotal late-season contests yet pitches his final game at Yankee Stadium with nothing but pride at stake.
"It is disappointing," he said. "We can't do anything about it now. We fought hard the whole year and fell short."
The Rays, meanwhile, are basking in September magic similar to the kind that saw them sneak into the playoffs in the 162nd game of the season in 2011, when the slogan "162 strong" took hold in Tampa Bay.
They have been putting the motto into practice lately. Having taken care of the Yankees on Wednesday, the prospect of being one of the two AL Wild Card teams looks increasingly likely. The Rays, going for their seventh straight win, hold a one-game lead over the Indians for the top AL Wild Card spot, and their magic number to clinch a Wild Card berth is three.
Just as it looked as though they may have peaked too soon, the Rays picked themselves up with a sweep of the Orioles and will look to do the same to the Yankees on Thursday.
Tampa Bay will give the ball to right-hander Alex Cobb in his final start of the regular season. Many consider Cobb to be the Rays' most consistent starter, as he has only recorded one loss since coming off the disabled list (concussion) on Aug. 15.
Cobb, who feels as though he's "in a groove," enjoys throwing with a lot on the line.
"I love having the ball in these games," Cobb said. "It's a skill set. … You have to learn and anticipate the nerves you're going to have, and you have to channel them in a way to not let them affect you, but to have them help you when you go out there."
Rays: Youth movement marches on
Wil Myers is considered by many to be among the top candidates for the AL Rookie of the Year Award, but he is not the only first-year player in the clubhouse who has made contributions.
Five rookie pitchers have had an impact on the Rays this season, most notably Chris Archer, who has a chance to finish the season with 10 wins despite not making his first start until June 1.
Both Myers and Archer were acquired in trades.
"We have to continually turn it over and find those guys," manager Joe Maddon said. "[Executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman] and the boys have always done a nice job with that. They're not just good trades for young players, they're Rookie of the Year candidates."
Along with Archer, fellow rookies Alex Torres, Jake Odorizzi, Enny Romero and Alex Colome have combined for a 14-10 record and a 2.75 ERA, and they have held opponents to a .209 batting average.
Yankees: Finale for Nova
New York will counter Cobb with right-hander Ivan Nova, who is coming off the second shutout of his career. He has lost just one of his last nine starts and has pitched through the sixth inning in seven of those games.
Girardi said that his club will not change the way it goes about its business despite knowing its season will soon end.
"You still go about it the same way and play the game the way it's supposed to be played," he said.
• With a win on Thursday, the Rays guarantee 90 victories for the fourth straight season and their fifth since 2008, the most in the Major Leagues in that time.
• The Yankees are 25-26 in series finales this season.
Sam Strong is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.