For Rays, it's how you finish that matters
Tampa Bay's talent will drive team to top of AL East
NEW YORK -- The toughest thing about having a breakthrough season of epic proportions can be working up a suitable encore. Welcome to the 2009 Tampa Bay Rays, who will eventually be fine, but first, they are going through some additional growing pains.
The 2008 Rays were not a good story; they were a magnificent story. Rising up from a decade of defeat, they won 97 regular-season games. They won in the American League East, baseball's toughest neighborhood. Then they won the AL pennant, fittingly defeating the defending World Series champion Red Sox in the AL Championship Series.
And you could see how the Rays, a young and extremely talented team with very little roster turnover coming into this season, could become even better. But baseball doesn't always offer a nice, clean and linear storyline. So in the first month of the 2009 season, the Rays have been a sub-.500 operation.
But it is not as though they have had catastrophic weaknesses in one part of their game or another. They have had small shortcomings -- a missed hit here, a missed pitch there and an unmade play somewhere else. This is, as Rays manager Joe Maddon neatly puts it, "how the baseball cookie crumbles."
The Rays are in fourth place rather than first now, but they have not floundered. For Maddon, the AL Manager of the Year in 2008, his team is not that far away from the level of play it needs to succeed.
"For me, it's pretty close, meaning we're just making one mistake here or there that we weren't making last year, we're not making that one pitch that we made last year, we're not getting that one special hit that we were getting last year," Maddon said. "That's just the way the baseball cookie crumbles. It's a different year; it's a different road that we're building.
"But I also see guys' preparation being excellent. They're grinding it out really well. Their support for each other is great. And I believe that we're pretty good.
"So staying the course, I know that we're going to start playing the kind of ball that we're capable of playing."
Recently, there have been genuinely encouraging developments for the Rays. They took three of four from the Red Sox last week, a small but definitive step in the right direction.
And on Wednesday night, they made their first appearance at the new Yankee Stadium and played a gem of a game, beating the Bombers, 4-3, in 10 innings. Tampa Bay starter Andy Sonnanstine kept New York off the scoreboard for seven innings with an impressive display of craft and command. Yankees starter A.J. Burnett may have much more imposing stuff than Sonnanstine, but Sonnanstine got the better of this matchup, and the Rays scratched and clawed opportunistically for three runs against Burnett.
Sonnanstine surrendered two baserunners in the eighth and left with a fine night's work. A game that seemed to be in hand suddenly became tied when lefty reliever J.P. Howell allowed a walk and then a three-run double to Mark Teixeira.
It was grim in more ways than one at that point -- a lost lead, a downpour and then a rain delay. This one was trending in the Yankees' direction. But things have been looking up a bit for the Rays.
"We have not played anywhere near as well as we can, and still, we're relatively close to .500," Maddon said. "We just need to get back to that number and then start going five over, 10 over, 15 over, etc.
"The thing that's changed a little bit over the last week is that we're starting to get the hit that covers our mistakes. Earlier, we weren't getting any hits to cover mistakes. Anybody can make mistakes. We weren't getting hits to cover the mistakes."
Bingo. Here came the covering hit, a solo home run by first baseman Carlos Pena in the 10th inning.
"We did so many things well today; we had a real nice vibe going in the dugout, but then you give [the lead] up and you come back in and there's a rain delay," Maddon said. "It's just a bad moment.
"But we were able to fight through it, and I really like that a lot."
Even with a record less glorious than expected, the Rays have piled up some impressive individual accomplishments, the kind of things that underscore how much talent and potential this club has. Pena, for instance, leads the Majors in home runs with 12. He has emerged as top-shelf run producer.
Left fielder Carl Crawford had a record-tying six stolen bases in a game against Boston last Sunday. With another steal on Wednesday night, Crawford extended his club record with steals in nine consecutive games.
Crawford leads the Major Leagues with 20 stolen bases and has stolen 22 straight without being caught, dating back to last season. He is one of the most exciting players in the game, and his work reflects the Rays' aggressive approach on the bases. They lead the big leagues in stolen bases.
Another Tampa Bay player putting up dominant offensive numbers is third baseman Evan Longoria. He is just 23, but in his second season, Longoria has become a true offensive force. He leads the Majors in RBIs, slugging percentage and doubles. But that's not all of the Longoria package.
"It's not only his bat; his defense is amazing," Pena said. "And he's only a kid, but he's very mature for his age. He brings so much to this clubhouse as a presence. It's really a pleasure to watch.
"I'm just glad I'm on the team, so I can see everything he does and say later that I played with him."
As you can see, the Rays haven't run short of respect for each other. The attitude here remains completely healthy. They may have undergone the team equivalent of a sophomore slump, but both their talent level and their chemistry clearly indicate that more success is still ahead of them.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.