- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009

NEW YORK

In their first 11 years of existence, the Tampa Bay Rays never broke from spring training with any kind of outside expectation of success. So clearly this franchise - on the heels of a stunning run to the World Series - was entering uncharted territory as this season commenced.

It would be easy, then, to look at Tampa Bay’s mediocre record (29-29 entering Monday night’s series finale against the Yankees) and question whether this team was really ready for the big time.

Inside the Rays’ clubhouse, though, there are no signs of panic. They may have spent most of the past two months in fourth place in the American League East and continue to stare up at the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays, but last year’s pennant race proved this team is capable of thriving in the long haul.

“I’m not worried about the Yankees and Red Sox. I’m worried about the Rays, and I mean that sincerely,” manager Joe Maddon said Friday. “We just have to worry about winning our games. If we do enough of that, we’ll be right where we want to be.”

A .500 record any other season would have been cause for the entire city of Tampa, Fla., to jump into the bay and squeal like little kids on summer vacation. But the Rays (and their growing fan base) won’t settle for mediocrity anymore. The last thing they want is to give doubters reason to believe last year’s pennant was a fluke.

There are already some built-in excuses for Tampa Bay’s struggles, most notably an overabundance of injuries. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura is out for the season. Shortstop Jason Bartlett is on the disabled list, as are designated hitter Pat Burrell, starter Scott Kazmir and reliever Troy Percival.

The Rays, though, won’t play the injury card.

“You see guys on TV blaming a lot of things on injuries,” third baseman Evan Longoria said. “But last year, we had more injuries than people knew about. Carl Crawford was playing hurt the whole year. B.J. Upton was playing hurt and then ended up going on the DL. I got hurt. We lost [Percival]. I mean, we lost a lot of guys last year. It’s just all about how your bench players and role players step in and do their job.”

In that regard, the Rays have been getting some much-needed contributions from fill-ins Ben Zobrist (hitting .296 with 11 homers) and Willy Aybar (who has a .361 on-base percentage in his past 18 games).

If, however, these guys are going to inch their way back to the top of the AL East, it will be because of their young starting rotation, which has begun to show flashes of its brilliant form of last season.

James Shields, Matt Garza and Jeff Niemann all have ERAs under 3.80. And rookie phenom David Price has been outstanding since his recall from Class AAA two weeks ago, posting a 2.45 ERA and striking out 20 in 14 2/3 innings so far.

So there is reason for hope, though the Rays still need to recapture at least some of the magic that catapulted them to the World Series last year. What’s the biggest difference between the 2008 and 2009 Rays? Last season’s team went 29-18 in one-run games. So far, this season’s team is 6-12.

“We have not had the big hit when we needed it. Or made the big pitch. Or we’ve made mistakes on defense,” Maddon said. “Those are the reasons why we’re a .500 club right now. Regardless of injuries, we have high standards that we should be able to do better than that.”

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