The Rangers, winning back-to-back American League pennants and owning the league's best record this season, have emerged as the AL's gold standard. But more than any other club, the Rays, with three postseason appearances in four years, and another fine season underway, are making an argument that they are residing in the same vicinity.
But succeeding against the Rangers is not an optional activity.
"We have to play well against the Rangers," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We have to beat the Rangers to get to the promised land."
This series was contested at a high level of intensity, before three sellout crowds. On Sunday night, just as in the Rays' victory on Friday night, the Rangers threatened late, this time loading the bases in the ninth against closer Fernando Rodney. But Rodney emerged with his seventh save in seven opportunities, and the Rays emerged with the series victory.
Maddon mentioned the "October in April" theme to this event. This was not an overstatement. These teams are the products of two of baseball's best organizations. They are well-made, well-managed and justifiably looking for even better things in the foreseeable future.
"I really appreciate how they play," Maddon said of the Rangers. "They play the game properly, and you've got to be ready, because if you're not, they will embarrass you.
"I have so much respect for what they've done, and I'd like to believe that they feel the same way about us. I think [these are] two teams that are playing the game in similar fashion, in that we play hard, we have good pitching. Obviously, the offensive side of their game has been a little bit better than ours has been recently.
"But at the end of the day, I think you have two teams that truly, truly fight for everything on a nightly basis. And I think that's where the rivalry can be born. I like it. I think it's good for us, it's good for them and it's good for baseball."
There should be no arguments on that score. What was doubly encouraging for the Rays on Sunday night was starter David Price following his shutout against the Angels with another highly effective performance. This was Price's first victory over the Rangers. He had been 0-3 against them in the regular season and 0-3 against them in the postseason.
"I think that's the best lineup in baseball," Price said of the Rangers. "They've got power one through nine, they've got speed mixed in there. They can hit the ball out to any part of the ballpark here. You've got to be able to make pitches and keep the ball down.
"Personally, for myself, I never beat those guys, so that feels great. But I'm pumped that we won [the series] as well. I can turn that page now; it feels good."
With one game left in April, the Rays, playing a schedule weighted toward road games, are tied for the AL East lead at 14-8. They are 8-1 at home, 6-7 on the road. The Rangers are 16-6. Winners of seven of their last eight games, the Rays have had a better-than-solid beginning.
"I think we've had a great April; not a good April, a great April, based on the teams that we've played and the schedule itself," Maddon said. "I'm really pleased and proud of our guys. Believe me, man, I think we've done wonderfully."
This team has the strengths that the Tampa Bay teams of recent seasons have had: pitching in both quality and quantity, a top-flight defense and an opportunistic, aggressive offense. And the entire roster is on board with the way the Rays are supposed to play the game.
The Rays just gave a demonstration of how good they can be, against the best possible opposition. The results tell us the same thing that Maddon is telling us.
"The Rangers are really good," Maddon said. "But I think the Rays are, too."