Rays up: By beating Boston, Tampa shows it's not going away
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The thunder was bellowing outside the Tropicana Dome on Monday night, and inside the strobe lights were painfully pulsing and the music was screeching and a pop fly had just caromed off one of those ridiculous catwalks high above the artificial grass, dropping for a hit in one of the worst excuses for a major league stadium in all of baseball. It was the ninth inning of maybe the most important game in the city's baseball history, and Tampa Bay's closer had just pulled a muscle, leading to a very public screaming match with his manager. A large segment of the crowd, rooting for the visiting Red Sox, was making itself heard. The hometown team seemed primed to blow its lead.
This, a lot of people had to be thinking, is Tampa Bay baseball. These are the Rays that we've all come to know and ridicule.
Only those old Tampa Bay teams, of course, are not these new Rays, the most compelling success story of baseball's first half. Despite the familiar trappings of their amusement-park park, a fan base that remains largely skeptical and a history that everybody would just as soon pretend didn't happen, these Rays are different.
"This group was always just happy to be here. The Rays were a Major League team, a bunch of guys playing down here, on the major league schedule, flying charter planes, staying in nice hotels. Very comfortable," says the leader of this Rays' renaissance, manager Joe Maddon. "It's not that way anymore."
No, these Rays finally have turned a corner that most people thought they'd never find. But the Rays are using an age-old baseball formula -- good pitching, good defense and a refusal to back down -- to forge by-far the best season in the franchise's brief but tortuous history.
The re-christened Rays (nee Devil Rays) are in first place in the American League East with the best record in baseball (51-32) and they are drawing crowds like never before. They're not great crowds, though they did well enough this week when the Red Sox were in town. But the crowds are up -- more than 28,000 a game in their last dozen home games -- a testament to both the Rays and the brand of baseball they're playing. They're certainly not coming to see The Trop.
The Rays have stood spike-to-spike -- literally and figuratively -- with the World Series champion Red Sox all season and played them to a near standoff. They have a winning record against the East, probably the most competitive division in the game. They have progressed to the point that it would be a genuine surprise if the Rays don't finish with 90 or more wins. And the Rays, remember, have never won more than 70.
If there's one defining characteristic of these new Rays -- beyond the shutdown bullpen, the airtight defense and the need for a little more fan-love -- it's their scrappiness. Beginning in spring training with a brawl against the Yankees and continuing through last month's now-famous donnybrook with Boston, in which Boston outfielder Coco Crips and Rays' righty James Shields exhanged punches, the longtime doormat Rays have shown that they're willing not only to fight, but to fight back. In early May, the Rays were swept in Boston; they won nine of their next 11 games. In early June, they were swept again by the Sox in Fenway but finished the month 16-10.
This is one increasingly confident, undeniably talented, unblinkingly in-your-face, fun-loving, punch-throwing, chip-on-the-shoulder-carrying group.
"I think some of that is our history. And some of it is due to our anonymity. You know, 'Who are these guys?'," says Andrew Friedman, the team's vice president and general manager. "These guys really have a little bit of an us-against-the-world mentality."
Slide in too hard, they come inside with a purpose pitch. Throw a punch, they punch back. Knock 'em down, they get back up.
"Playing in this division, the issues that have occurred with us with the Yankees and the Red Sox, can really start to be a galvanizing moment -- if handled properly," Maddon says.