Eighteen games left. Not much time for the Tampa Bay Rays to, you know, CRACK. To get crushed by the unknown, in this case playing September games of profound meaning for the first time since the team came into existence.

Eighteen games left. Not much time for the Tampa Bay Rays to, you know, CRACK. To get crushed by the unknown, in this case playing September games of profound meaning for the first time since the team came into existence.

Can’t these Rays tell time? It’s approaching midnight on the baseball clock. What do they think they’re doing?

What they’re NOT doing is feeling the heat. Ask the Red Sox -- ask anyone -- if the Rays look like the burden of being an autumn frontrunner is getting to them. Save your breath.

When the Rays went into a free-fall seven-game losing streak leading into the All-Star Game break, pundits and fans thought, “AH-HAH, here it comes.” Rays will be Rays, you know.

Yeah right.

When they came into Fenway Park on Monday night in another tailspin, the Rays lead over the Red Sox was down to 1½ games. When they got shut out in the opener --- the second straight game they couldn’t score a run --- the lead was half a game.

Tuesday night, with first place on the line, a Red Sox win would have changed the standings at the top and restored a more natural order of things in the AL East.

One problem. The Rays are determined to maintain an UNNATURAL order. When Jason Bay hit a dramatic two-run, go-ahead homer in the eighth inning in the second game of the series, it was one of the top moments of the Fenway season. The Rays limited it to a moment. They came back to win.

The next night, they hung around for more than five hours and won it in the 14th inning on a three-run homer by homeboy Carlos Pena.

In his short stay with the Red Sox two years ago, Pena had a walk-off homer that was a nice little one-day story, and soon forgotten. Wednesday’s wasn’t a walk-off blast by Pena, but it just might have been the impetus for keeping the standings like this:

TAMPA BAY
BOSTON

Until Sept. 28.

What the Rays did in those two nights should have erased all doubt about this unique and fascinating team.

The Rays and Red Sox meet three more times, next week in Tampa Bay. These teams may have more business to conduct in October.

Some things gleaned from that terrific series, from a Red Sox stance:

- Mike Timlin should only be allowed to pitch if the Red Sox are 12 runs down or 15 runs up. He’s had a noble career, but it’s time to put the old war horse down. For his own sake. And he knows it.

- He may be 16-2 (and just how did that happen anyway?) but Daisuke Matsuzaka has to be the most frustrating 14-game-over-.500-pitcher we’ve ever seen. Do you really trust him in Game 2 or 3 of the playoffs?

- Is Hideki Okajima a one-hit wonder?

- Justin Masterson had a decent turn as a starter, then got sent down to Pawtucket to get used to bullpen duty. He will be a starter again, but right now he’s become invaluable as a late-inning reliever. Sort of like Timlin was in his day.

- One game to win, for all the marbles: who do you want out there, Josh Beckett or Jon Lester?

- Not a crisis exactly, but the Red Sox have a catching problem that will have to be addressed after the season. Yes, Jason Varitek will want to come back. But how many years will the team extend him?

- Wednesday night, Jason Bay went 0-7 with three strikeouts. The same night, Manny Ramirez hit a pair of two-run jacks, his 13th and 14th as the Dodgers won for the ninth time in 10 games. They lead the NL West by 3 ½ games. OK, that was just a little tease. Bay is going to have a nice career here, and let’s see how Manny does next season when his Boston anger has dissipated. OK, you’ve made your point, Manny. You’ve metaphorically given the Boston front office the middle finger. See ya in the World Series. Wouldn’t that be something.

- Jason Ellsbury is a nightly web gem waiting to happen, but let’s face it, he’s been disappointing at the plate.

- Don’t feel guilty if you’re a bit concerned about Jonathan Papelbon.

- There’s really an upside to Jed Lowrie.

- Bartolo Colon, we turn our lonely eyes towards you tomorrow.

Four big one with Toronto this weekend. And on it goes.

Lenny Megliola is a Daily News columnist. His e-mail is lennymegs@aol.com