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Hal Bodley

Rays playing as well as anyone right now

Rays playing as well as anyone right now

Rays playing as well as anyone right now
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- If the Tampa Bay Rays don't take over first place in the next Power Rankings, there should be an investigation.

Not only does this amazing juggernaut own the best record in the Major Leagues at this stage of the season, it is also the best team.

Go figure.

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They're playing without All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria, not to mention reliever Kyle Farnsworth, but haven't skipped a beat.

The rebuilding Oakland Athletics became their latest victim, falling, 7-2, Friday night under a firestorm of hits and runs and another superb pitching performance by left-hander David Price.

The Rays are atop the tough American League East, and even though the season is only five weeks old it says here the Rays have become the team to beat.

When Spring Training was winding down, we talked about the Yankees, Tigers, Angels, Phillies, et al, being the logical contenders to get off to fast starts with the best records.

It was a given Tampa Bay, with the best rotation in the AL, should be in the postseason. But jetting out with the best record at this stage was a stretch.

Considering the first month's schedule, a .500 record was within reason. And considering Longoria was lost for six to eight weeks with a partially torn hamstring, the 19-8 record is even more amazing.

"I remember talking to [pitching coach] Jim Hickey in Spring Training, and he said after the first month if we're .500, we would be playing pretty good baseball," said Price.

Rays skipper Joe Maddon said that coming out of Spring Training, "I thought we could have a good record, but didn't anticipate the best record in baseball at this stage based on our schedule. The schedule was kind of ratty, man -- a 10-day road trip, mostly day games and on top of that the level of competition was pretty severe also. So, there are a lot of reasons why you'd have a hard time imagining you'd be in this position."

The Rays opened the season by sweeping the Yankees in three games, had a tough go in Boston and Detroit, but since April 18 have lost just two games.

Tampa Bay's win Friday night was its sixth straight, improving its record at Tropicana Field to an uncanny 13-1. Not since Sept. 28, 2010, when the Rays were en route to the AL East title, have they held the best record in the Major Leagues.

"The biggest reason is we've played so well at home," added Maddon. "We've won a lot of close games here. Seattle played really well against us, and they pitched very well. We just pitched a little bit better than they did. It was the same thing in the Angels' series. We out-pitched them."

In summary, Maddon believes "primarily this record has been built on our pitching getting back in order and the bullpen really being totally on top of their games and making hay at home."

That pitching staff has a 2.26 ERA since April 16 in 18 games, 15 of which have been victories.

Walk through the Rays' clubhouse and it's obvious how much fun the players have, win or lose.

It's all about Maddon's sometimes wacky philosophy.

He believes players sacrifice, drive themselves and work extremely hard to reach the Major Leagues. And when they get there, they should enjoy the ride.

"That's part of what I think," he said. "I think a lot of the things you learn as you grow up as a coach or a young player is what you would not want to do given the opportunity to do something. You learn both from the guys that you think are really good at what they do, and you learn from the guys you think are really bad at what they do.

"Losing and losing streaks are perpetuated by attitude more than anything else. A lot of the attitude is based on proper processing of events. I'd much rather have our guys come out and have fun every day. That's the healthiest way to go about a Major League season."

With the Rays trailing, 1-0, in the third inning Friday night, Matt Joyce electrified the small crowd and energized his teammates when he made a diving catch near the right-field line on Jemile Weeks' sinking liner.

It was a huge lift at the time -- before the Rays vaulted in front, 3-1, and later poured it on.

"The first month was a great test for us," said Joyce. "You have to beat the best teams and take advantage when you don't play the best teams. It seems like we've had everything at our disposal to use. We've had different guys stepping up. This has been the Rays' theme and it's a blast to be part of it."

Price, who improved his record to 5-1 and lowered his ERA to 2.35, said: "We're 11 games over .500 right now, but as a pitching staff we can pitch better. That's something we're trying to do, with everybody on the same page and get the ball rolling every five days and take it from there."

Price, who struck out 12, joined teammate James Shields (5-0) to give the Rays the only five-game winners in the AL.

So after five weeks, this is the best team in the Major Leagues.

How good can they become before it's over?

"We obviously revolve around our starting pitching, and the bullpen has been fabulous," said Maddon. "The difference right now is the offense has been a lot more productive than what we've seen over the last couple of years. I'd like to see that trend continue while we maintain our basic DNA which is pitching and defense."

Pausing, he adds: "If we can do all that, we can do some really good things this year."

Which is something they've more than shown so far.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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