ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays are absolutely, positively convinced they have gotten better. But to really get anywhere in the American League East, they know they still have to push past the heavyweight Yankees (if that's okay with manager Joe Girardi), Red Sox and Blue Jays.
"We believe that we're better, but I think the American League, and the American League East specifically, are going to tell us how much better we are this year than in the past," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
"Theory is one thing, reality's something else and I'm really pragmatic when it comes to that stuff. … We'll know we're better by the number of games we win and how we match up when we play these guys 18 times each."
Though it's only spring training — when teams apparently aren't supposed to play hard, as Girardi said, then the Yankees proved it by signing actor/comedian Billy Crystal to suit up for them Thursday — the Rays will get a reminder of what they're up against the next three days as they, um, collide with the Yankees (with both teams saying Saturday's controversy is behind them), Red Sox and Blue Jays in order.
Though they've spent most of the past 10 years looking up at the trio, the Rays insist the view is changing and that the Red Sox and Yankees, who've finished first and second nine of the past 10 years, will soon realize it.
"This is the AL East, enough said," ace Scott Kazmir said. "But with the young, fiery guys we have here we can compete with anybody. We know that, and they know that. …
"I think you just can't have one or two teams to measure how we're doing. We get off to a good start, who knows what might happen. I think with Toronto, with the guys they have, and with the way we improved our team, I think it's going to be a fight."
That view is not limited to the Tampa Bay clubhouse.
Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon said he considers the Rays "a very scary team" that could have contended in other divisions, and admits the status may no longer be quo.
"I think the Jays may be the team to beat in our division," he said in Tampa. "I think their pitching, top to bottom, is the best in both leagues, and they've made improvement. You can't predict anything. If the Rays get off to a good start, they can go with a lot of confidence. And it could be a totally different division."
The view is the same from Fort Myers, where Boston starter Tim Wakefield also said the Rays made themselves better. "It's never been easy, and now they're going to be a very tough team to play," Wakefield said. "I think we're going to have a situation where there are some teams in that division that can knock each other off."
After finishing last in nine of 10 seasons (ahead of the Jays in 2004), the Rays figure things have to be looking up. And as much as the Yankees and Red Sox have been in their way, the biggest measure of progress may be in how they've widened their view.
"The Yankees and Red Sox are two of the best teams in the league hands down," Rays starter James Shields said. "But we haven't had troubles with them in the past. They're just another team that's coming through. …
"We have to beat them to win the division, bottom line. But we're going to take the approach that we play our game and not play up to their expectations. Everyone thinks of them so highly, but we're going to just play our game and I think everything will be fine."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.