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If they get there, Rays could win it all

If they get there, Rays could win it all

ST. PETERSBURG -- This Tampa Bay Rays team could win the World Series. The much more difficult task for them would be getting from here to there, but once in the Fall Classic, they would be not only the reasonable choice, but the obvious choice.

Some of your questions can be anticipated: What? Why? How? Huh?

Take it easy. First of all, this is no longer a far-fetched notion. With 126 games in the books, the Rays are 77-49, the second best record in the American League. Their success is no longer at all surprising. Even the term "contenders" no longer does complete justice to their first-place-in-the-AL East circumstances.

Of course it is premature to discuss the World Series with 36 regular-season games remaining, not to mention the first two postseason rounds. But it also truly enjoyable to contemplate the possibilities of the historical breakthrough the Rays are in the process of achieving.

As far as getting from here -- August -- to there -- the World Series -- the Rays have a problem that is shared by 13 other clubs. They are in the more difficult league, the American.

Conceding one of the American League's four postseason berths to the Angels, runaway leaders in the West, the Rays are essentially in a five-way race for the remaining three spots. They are leading that race, but the competition is fierce; the Red Sox and the Yankees in their own division, the White Sox and the Twins, both playing improved baseball recently in the Central. It's a six-team race for three spots if you want to include the Blue Jays, or it's four if you want to discount the Yankees, although history teaches us not to do that now.

But let's say the Rays climb this mountain of difficulty and reach the postseason. The question of home-field advantage in the AL playoffs is still up in the air. But the question of home-field advantage in the World Series is not. The AL has the advantage, as it has every year since this innovation/gimmick was put in place, because of its annual victory in the All-Star Game.

And that is where the Rays, if they were to become the American League champions, would be the choice of anybody who had simply looked objectively at the numbers. So far this year, against the three other clubs with the best records in baseball, the Rays are a cumulative 14-1 at home.

Those three would be the Boston Red Sox, against whom the Rays are 6-0 at Tropicana Field, the Chicago Cubs (3-0) and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (5-1). The Rays had not lost to the Angels at home this season prior to a 5-4 loss in a thriller on Wednesday night. It is true that the Rays are 0-6 in Boston and 1-2 in Anaheim, but that is not the issue.

The issue is that the Rays are 47-18 at home, the best home record in the league. There is nothing bizarre or tricked up about Tropicana Field that gives them a huge built-in edge. It is an indoor, artificial-surface facility in an era when most people are headed in the opposite direction, but as these places go, it says "baseball" more than, for instance, Minnesota's Metrodome.

No, the only real explanation is that the Rays are actually as good as their record indicates. (So they're 30-31 on the road? So what? Out of all the current division leaders, only the Angels have a winning record on the road.)

Angels manager Mike Scioscia knows what he has seen here from this Tampa Bay club is remarkable, and remarkably good.

"What's happened with that team has been incredible, but it's kind of been a storm you've seen brewing for a while," Scioscia said. "Even though their record wasn't what you expected last year, at some points, they were as tough as any team that was playing in Major League Baseball."

Now, Scioscia says, the Rays have managed to develop a depth of organizational talent that never previously existed. What has happened between the two clubs this season in Tropicana Field has been no accident.

"They've out-hit us, they've out-pitched us, they've played better defense than we have," Scioscia said of the five losses. "We haven't played good baseball here, but they've out-played us. That's the bottom line."

The Rays have played like a team good enough for the postseason for the vast majority of their regular season. Their recent success has come even with the loss to injury of three key players: Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria and Troy Percival.

The Rays are at the point now where they command respect, or at least should command respect. When manager Joe Maddon went onto the field on Tuesday night, to vociferously object to a controversial out call at first base on center fielder B.J. Upton, he did so with the mindset of a man managing toward the postseason.

"All I could think about was, 'That's one play that could keep you out of the playoffs,'" Maddon said. "That's why I got as enraged as I did."

Maddon was ejected for his trouble, but his very forceful presence on the field sent a message.

"The Tampa Bay Rays are going to make their mark in this industry," Maddon said. "I've been here for the last three years, and I've seen some situations that I really didn't say a whole lot about. At some point, you've just got to stand up and say what you think. [Tuesday night] was a perfect example, an instance that I thought it was important and appropriate for me to say what I said."

The home record against the best possible opposition is one more piece of evidence that the Rays have arrived.

"It just indicates that we are making the required progress," Maddon said. "We're missing some key components while we're doing it and that, to me, is very interesting, also. A lot of credit goes to these other guys that have popped in there. Gabe Gross has been having fantastic at-bats, Eric Hinske, fantastic, Willy Aybar, all these guys have really produced high-quality at-bats."

And so, the Rays head toward the home stretch with a 4 1/2-game lead in the AL East. At this point, the surprise would be a not continued success, but a diminished level of play.

"I think it's a pretty good trend we've got going on right now," Maddon said with a smile.

That brings us back to the 2008 World Series, with the Rays opening at home against the best the National League has to offer, which at this juncture seems to be the Cubs by a landslide. The Cubs are indisputably a fine, well-balanced, well-managed, exciting club. And they are also 0-3 against the Rays at Tropicana Field this season.

This is, of course, not a prediction. But it is a distinct possibility. Rays in seven? At this point, why not?

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

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