Confident Rays believe future is now

Rays believe future is now

ST. PETERSBURG -- This has nothing to do with a franchise that never won more than 70 games in a single season. This has everything to do with a legitimately good baseball team; here and now, playing its home games at Tropicana Field.

Forget whatever you thought you knew about the Tampa Bay Rays. It's ancient history, it's useless, it's irrelevant to the topic at hand. You could say that a page has been turned for this franchise, but it's more like an entirely new book is being written.

Let us glance briefly at the numbers that will explain, clarify and underscore this phenomenon. The Rays, after victories over the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, are 42-29, just two games out of first in the American League East. That's very encouraging, but it is just the beginning.

The Rays are fourth in the AL in team earned run average. They lead the league in team fielding percentage. In the other half of the game, the Rays are a mere ninth in the AL in runs scored.

In a way, that moderate offensive output actually makes the overall picture even brighter. The Rays have created this early-season success out of truly sturdy stuff -- pitching and defense. They don't have a single hitter having an out-of-his-mind, over-his-head, career kind of year. There is nothing of the fluke about any of this.

And as a bonus, the Rays also lead not only the AL, but the Major Leagues in stolen bases. Speed doesn't slump, and it helps in both halves of the inning. This is not a one-dimensional operation that the Rays have put together.

If you just looked at the numbers, you would say that the biggest difference between the 2008 Rays team and all of its predecessors would be the pitching, in both quality and quantity. The rotation is reliable and more. At the back end of the bullpen, closer Troy Percival has made a crucial contribution with the revival of an admirable career. The Rays have done a great job of producing homegrown talent, but they also obtained Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, in what will stand as an absolute heist, although a heist in an honorable cause.

But there is also an intangible difference in the 2008 Rays. There is not a sense of awe and wonderment that this team is achieving something. There is instead a belief that this is exactly what this team should be doing.

Before Wednesday night's game, manager Joe Maddon received a gee-whiz kind of query about just how cool it was that the Rays would be given a chance to display their prowess before a national television audience on ESPN.

Maddon responded, politely enough, but pointedly, that virtually all of the Rays' games were televised and that in any event, this was not a matter for the team's focus.

"I don't want us to focus on who is covering the game from a television sense," Maddon said.

It was a harmless question. But the answer was better than the question.

All right, the Rays are young. But this does not disqualify them from success. It is as Tigers manager Jim Leyland says: "Don't talk to me about age. Talk to me about talent."

The Rays are both young and talented. But they don't appear to be unprepared for immediate success. Take the much-heralded third baseman, Evan Longoria, 22, so well-regarded here that the franchise signed him to a multi-year deal within a week after he was summoned from Triple-A. He was regarded as a tremendous hitting prospect, but his defensive abilities may be every bit as impressive.

"Everybody talks about his offense, but his defense has been Gold Glove to this point," Maddon said.

On Tuesday night, Longoria hit a mammoth home run and then made a game-saving play, with two out in the ninth and the tying run on third. He charged in on Reed Johnson's bunt, making the classic barehanded pickup and across-the-body throw in one motion, just in time to end the game.

"The kid showed a lot of athleticism at third base," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "It was a really nice play."

The home run would have been enough for one night. And so would the play at third. But both in one night? Wow. But Longoria is not some youthful dreamer here on a pass. This team has the sense that its time is not a vague and distant future, but right now.

"We've known that we have the talent and the players to do what we're doing now," Longoria said. "This team has grown. We've been able to come together. The atmosphere in here is the most exciting thing, to come to the park every day and just expect to win."

That is not an unreasonable expectation. The Rays have won 24 of their last 28 and nine straight series at home. More than that, against the very best opposition, the three first-place teams in the AL and the Cubs, who, after all, arrived at Tropicana Field with baseball's best record, the Rays are 13-11. Take that together with the second straight, tense, taut, dramatic, one-run victory, 5-4 on Wednesday night, there were even more reasons to believe in the Rays.

"For us, it validates that we are playing well and we are a good team," Maddon said. "When you go through these situations where we're attempting to grow, you think you're good and you think you're better, but then you have to go out there and actually show it. It's not about coming close, and coming up short, and always saying, 'What if,' and 'We just missed.' You actually have to do it to get to that next level.

"We seem to play all first-place teams," Maddon said with a smile. "The whole schedule is littered with first-place teams. Everybody that shows up here is in first place. It's a great thing. Again, we gain confidence from that and you realize you can play against anybody. That's an important thought to maintain. The flip side is that we have to do better on the road against these teams. We've done pretty well against them here, but we have to take that composure and the focus and fight through those late innings on the road. We're doing better, it's getting better, but there are still some hurdles that we have to overcome."

Again, that is exactly the right approach to take; the focus not on what has been accomplished, but what is needed for improvement.

In total, everything is different for the Rays in 2008. That would be different as in better. On Wednesday night, the vocal competition between Cubs fans and Rays fans in the crowd of 31,496, combined with the quality of play on the field, made for a terrific evening of baseball intensity.

The Rays may not be better than the leaders of their division, the Boston Red Sox, but there are roughly 28 other clubs in that same boat. If the season ended today -- although it never does when somebody says that -- the Rays would win the AL Wild Card berth. This is not a dream. This is not a fantasy. This is a good baseball team, getting better.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.