The Windup: Rays keep shining
At the halfway point of their season, the Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in baseball.
I could type that 15 times, get Bud Selig to shout it from his Milwaukee mountaintop, dump pamphlets emblazoned with it onto every stadium in the big leagues and it'd still be darn near incomprehensible to just about anyone familiar with the history of this often incompetent and oddly endearing franchise. Yet with 81 games down and 81 left for the Rays, it's as true as Evan Longoria's sweet swing and Carl Crawford's speed, as honest as Joe Maddon's unshakeable optimism and as unassailable as Scott Kazmir on a good day. And Kazmir has had a lot of good days.
As they embark on their first pennant race, it's probably time to stop being surprised by the Rays, who have a baseball-best 49-32 record and a half-game lead in the American League East over the defending world champion Red Sox, whom they host for what promises to be a revealing three-game series starting tonight. Indeed, these guys are no fluke. Since April 19, Tampa has the best record in baseball (42-22) and has spent more time in first place this year (23 days) than in the previous 10 years of its existence. The Rays, now just 21 wins short of the franchise record, are getting used to winning. And they don't seem like a team that is liable to choke away all that hard work.
The Rays are deep and young in the rotation, with Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine. Only Sonnanstine has allowed more hits than innings pitched. The Rays have a solid bullpen that ends with Troy Percival (19 saves in 21 tries and a 2.96 ERA) and contains one of the most underrated relievers in the game, workhorse lefty J.P. Howell. They give up fewer runs (4.05 a game) than anyone in the East.
The Rays have that young lineup that is getting a Rookie of the Year run by third baseman Longoria (.271, .341 on-base, 15 homers), a breakout year from young catcher Dioner Navarro (.317/.368/.444), another stellar season from 23-year-old center fielder B.J. Upton and critical contributions from veterans such as Eric Hinske and Cliff Floyd.
Tampa Bay also has a bold front office that looks willing to go make a trade-deadline bid for another starter (Indians lefty C.C. Sabathia has been rumored) or maybe a right-handed bat to bolster the lineup. And the franchise has every reasonable expectation that the few players who haven't performed up to level for whatever reasons -- first baseman Carlos Pena, second baseman Akinori Iwamura, outfielder Gabe Gross, designated hitter Jonny Gomes -- will get better in the second half.
Nothing's going to be easy for the Rays from here, beginning tonight. The Rays are just 3-6 against Boston in a showdown that has becoming increasingly rambunctious, and one that came to a head early in June with a brawl in Boston. Tampa Bay has more road games than home games in the second half, too, and the Rays are just a .500 team on the road.
Still, the Rays have more going for them now than they ever have. More talent. More money to spend. More backing (attendance at the Trop is up by a couple of thousand over last year). More momentum. And, for the first time ever, a lead at the halfway point.
Nobody should be surprised if we're talking about them at the end of September, too.