- The Washington Times - Monday, July 5, 2004

MIAMI — All Geoff Blum knew was the shirts had to go.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays infielder showed up for work at Tropicana Field on May 20 in a dour mood. He was on a self-appointed mission to rip the symbols of misery out of his teammates’ lockers and toss those cursed souvenirs of a season-opening trip to Tokyo into the trash bin.

What followed was an unprecedented stretch of winning that thrust Tampa Bay’s unheralded baseball team into an unfamiliar position of national prominence. The Devil Rays, who finished last in the American League East in each of their first six seasons, suddenly were virtually unbeatable.

“I got rid of the Japan T-shirts,” Blum said Friday before the Devil Rays’ 4-2 victory against the Florida Marlins at Pro Player Stadium. After yesterday’s loss, Tampa Bay was 40-39, a franchise record for wins before the All-Star break. “I’m going to take full credit for it.”

Manager Lou Piniella’s Devil Rays were 10-28 the day Blum took it upon himself to conduct his light-hearted T-shirt exorcism. Over the next 38 games, the Rays went 28-10, the best record in the major leagues during that stretch, and they ended June in the heady and unfamiliar company of baseball’s .500 teams, entrenched in third place in the AL East.

What was unclear as Tampa Bay began the current 10-day, 11-game road trip, which continues today with a day-night doubleheader against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards, was which stretch — the agony of 10-28 or the ecstasy of 28-10 — more clearly defined the Devil Rays heading into the All-Star break.

“How about somewhere in between? We definitely, in my opinion, are at least a .500 ball club,” said former Orioles catcher Brook Fordyce, one of 14 new members of Tampa Bay’s Opening Day roster. “Based on teams we’ve played, talent, how we’ve gone about our business, our defense, our pitching, our collective hitting — even when it’s not collective — tells me we can play .500 ball. And that’s a stepping stone for this organization.”

The Devil Rays soared in June. They began the month in last place, 12 games behind the AL East co-leaders, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

By the time the calendar turned to July, Tampa Bay had put together a franchise-record 12-game win streak. It banished the notion it could not compete against National League teams (the Devil Rays went 3-15 against the NL in 2003) by compiling one of the best interleague records in the majors. It was 15-3 after yesterday’s game.

During the win streak, the Rays swept the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks on the road and shot past the struggling Toronto Blue Jays and Orioles in the division standings. The best month in franchise history (20-6) helped the Rays get within 2 games of second-place Boston and become a legitimate wild-card contender.

“I don’t think too many people saw that coming,” said left fielder Carl Crawford, the catalyst for Tampa Bay’s offensive surge. “But it came, and we’re greeting it with open arms, no doubt.”

Piniella was careful throughout the month to caution anyone who would listen (and suddenly, everyone was listening) that Tampa Bay was “not out of the woods.” This is, after all, a team that went 63-99 in his first year as manager and never has won more than 69 games in any season.

His goal was to keep things in perspective.

“What it should do for us is it should show us as a team that if we continue to play hard … it should give us confidence that we are very capable of playing good baseball,” Piniella said. “This month should be a reminder of that.”

While those around him began to whisper about the possibility of the playoffs, Piniella merely looked for what he called a “consolidation” of wins and losses.

“I’d like to see a nice consolidation around the .500 mark, somewhere close,” Piniella said. “And I think if we can do that and take it into August that way, I think we’ll be able to muster another run sometime.”

Mustering the other kind of run was the big problem as the Devil Rays stumbled out of the gate last in the AL in team batting average and runs scored. A shortened spring training schedule, necessitated by the trip to Japan to play the Yankees in late March, seemed to quiet the team’s bats through April and most of May.

Slugger Aubrey Huff was batting .207 with four home runs and 18 RBI on May 19. As the team’s fortunes reversed, Huff’s numbers began to creep toward what was expected after he put together the best offensive season in team history in 2003 with a .311 average, 34 home runs and 107 RBI.

Through yesterday, he was up to .270 with 11 home runs and 49 RBI. Among the most important factors in the team’s turnaround was his return to form as a run producer, along with the emergence of Crawford as one of the game’s best leadoff batters (a .316 average, 59 runs scored and a major-league leading 38 stolen bases).

“I can’t say it’s one thing,” Fordyce said. “Our pitching’s been consistent the whole time. Our hitting has been a lot better. I think that was the big key. Early in the season we weren’t hitting at all. But now, we’re putting up a lot of runs against good pitchers like [Arizona’s] Randy Johnson and [Toronto’s] Roy Halladay. So we’re going up against elite pitchers and putting up runs. That’s what you need to do in the American League East.”

That and Blum’s creative route to re-invention through T-shirt eradication have helped the Devil Rays erase the ugly memories of their 10-28 start.

“No team should have to go through the turmoil that we were going through,” Blum said. “But I guess right now it was all worth it.”

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