Rays getting their swagger back
Tampa Bay wins seven of nine, moves 3 1/2 back in East
MIAMI -- The Rays' first bus to Land Shark Stadium parked a little before 11 a.m. ET on Sunday. Minutes later, most of the players walked into the visitors' clubhouse as winners of seven straight in South Florida, victorious in seven of their past nine games altogether, above .500 for the first time in 41 days and just 3 1/2 back in the gargantuan American League East.
One by one, they strolled to their lockers in their all-white attire and seemed to convey an air of confidence that perhaps hasn't been there all year.
Simply put, the swagger the young Rays carried while making a remarkable run in 2008 is back.
Superstar Evan Longoria talked about it on Saturday night, right after his team came up with six runs in the top of the ninth to pull away for another lopsided victory, when he said, "I think the belief is back."
So is the unity.
The all-white suits are Exhibit A, and some fake mustaches are Exhibit B. That's what several Rays sported on the bench and in the bullpen on Saturday, in honor of journeyman rookie reliever Dale Thayer's majestic 'stache to make him feel more at home and, in turn, possibly make the entire squad come together.
Perhaps that's not looked at as a big deal around the league. But for a rather green team that used synchronized Mohawks to set the tone for a run to the World Series last season and didn't get off to the start it wanted to in '09, it could be a big step.
"We're getting a good feel about us right now," manager Joe Maddon said. "The bench has been really vibrant -- I like that. The clubhouse, a lot of fun stuff going on. Little mustaches in the bullpen -- a little tribute to Dale Thayer last night; I really enjoyed that myself. I like those little things -- the whiteout road trip. A lot of people may not understand, but it's all about unity, camaraderie.
"It's also about risk-taking. I had to buy a white suit. That's a risk."
But things weren't always as bright and exuberant as the pregame attire players and coaches sported on Sunday.
Back as recently as May 12, things actually looked quite stale.
That's when the Rays had just come off a 7-5 loss to the division-rival Orioles, found themselves four games below the .500 mark and were a season-high 7 1/2 games back in the AL East.
A little more than a week before that, they had taken three out of four in a home series against the Red Sox and looked like they were on their way.
But things went south once again.
"We came into this year with a lot of expectation and a couple of new pieces to the puzzle that everybody needed to get used to," right-hander Andy Sonnanstine said. "And I think right now we're jelling as a whole."
Sonnanstine pointed to his team's 7-5 win over the Indians exactly one week ago -- when the benches cleared after Kerry Wood ran two fastballs inside on B.J. Upton in the eighth inning -- as a tipping point for the team uniting, saying, "When something like that happens, you really feel like a team together, protecting one of your players."
Maddon essentially agreed.
"We like a little bit of a thunderstorm now and then," the Rays' skipper said. "We enjoy inclement weather sometimes.
"I never doubted that we've been together, but sometimes that gene remains dormant a little bit, and then all of a sudden it needs to be excited. Then all of a sudden it really comes back to the forefront. If we're talking about anything [that sparked the team], it's that."
But whether that serves as a defining moment for the rest of the season remains to be seen, considering the Rays have 117 games to go before a true read on how good this team actually is -- or was -- can be given.
"That's tough to determine," Sonnanstine said when asked if this group is as good as last year's bunch. "I think in terms of camaraderie, we're real close, but it's a different team. We have possibly more talent than we had last year, but it's a balance of talent and clubhouse atmosphere, and a lot of different things go into that.
"But I think we're getting real close to where we were last year."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.