- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

The natural reaction for most of the baseball world when seeing the Tampa Bay Rays and the Florida Marlins near the top of their respective divisions is to scoff.

After all, these are two teams that weren’t projected to be any good, and they’re not exactly crafting their impressive early season body of work with the benefit of a sporting public willing to take them seriously.

The Marlins are the team that won two World Series in six years and now register as a mere blip in baseball’s collective memory, in part because each one was followed soon after by a dramatic roster purge and in part because they were won in front of possibly the most apathetic fan base in the game.

Except maybe for the Rays’ fans. They have endured 10 years in a half-hearted excuse for a stadium with a team that has never managed more than 70 wins in a season. (Remember June 2004, when the team went 20-6 and actually merited attention for a few weeks? Neither do most people because Tampa Bay finished that season losing 37 of its last 58).

But whether you want to believe it or not, the fact remains that both of these teams crossed the season’s one-third mark last week on pace to win 90 games. And what’s more, they might have the mettle to keep it going through the summer.

Despite playing in the unforgiving AL East, the Rays could stand a better chance of reaching October than their South Florida counterparts. They gave up a big piece of their future in trading Delmon Young to the Twins last winter but have been paid back for it with the emergence of Matt Garza as a vital piece of a flourishing young rotation. Young, meanwhile, is struggling in Minnesota.

The offense is filled with inexperienced (read: high-strikeout) hitters, but the way the Rays pitch and play defense, they can withstand slumps better than a lot of teams. They already have shut out opponents six times, are 8-7 in one-run games and have a pitching staff that ranks in the AL’s top five in every meaningful category but walks and strikeouts.

Florida is built to win in the exact opposite style of Tampa Bay, at least for now. The Marlins’ pitching is their big question mark, not an offense led by free-swinging sluggers like Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla. Because of that, they might be more prone to the kind of slumps that could keep them from making the playoffs for a year or two, but they’re headed in the right direction.

The question now is will anybody in Florida notice? The Rays rank last among American League teams in attendance, with the Marlins last in baseball. Florida has a new ballpark on the way for the 2011 season as part of an agreement that also requires the team to change its name to the Miami Marlins. The Rays are trying to escape dreary Tropicana Field and have a new facility open by 2012.

Both teams are worth watching now, however. They’re full of young talent that should be around for a long time, and they’re making noise in their respective divisions sooner than they were supposed to.

It’s not as if the league is on the verge of its ultimate ratings disaster - a Rays-Marlins World Series. But maybe by the time that becomes a definite possibility, baseball will be ready for it.

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