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Back in contention, Rays deserve praise

Yunel Escobar, left, and Ben Zobrist celebrate after the Rays improve to 10-1 during a 14-game stretch against low-tier teams.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Yunel Escobar, left, and Ben Zobrist celebrate after the Rays improve to 10-1 during a 14-game stretch against low-tier teams.

ST. PETERSBURG

The Rays can't say it, so someone else has to.

Right now, they are playing a bunch of stiffs, tomato cans dressed as major-leaguers. They are playing teams that would probably need extra innings to beat those kids from The Sandlot.

Now here's something else that needs to be said: So what? Who cares?

You want to win division titles? You want to make the playoffs? Here's how you do it: hold your own against good teams and then kick the living stuffing out of everyone else.

That's exactly what the Rays are doing.

"We're just on a winning high," Rays All-Star Ben Zobrist said after Thursday's 4-3 victory over the Twins.

Let's go back to the start of last week. The Rays were hovering just above .500, still drifting in that purgatory of not really being in the hunt but not being out of it either. They were just meandering in a season that seemed headed for mediocrity.

That's when we all looked at the schedule and determined that if the Rays were ever going to make any kind of run, they needed to kick sand in the face of some of baseball's weaklings.

Thus began a 14-game stretch against the Astros, White Sox and Twins. If baseball had homecoming games, these are the teams you would invite to town.

And now, 11 games into this soft spot in the schedule, the Rays are 10-1, with the Astros, the worst team in all of baseball, coming to the Trop for a three-game series that starts tonight.

The Rays have won 15 of 18 and an MLB-leading eight in a row, the second-longest streak in franchise history, to climb back into the race.

So, now you ask: Are they a good team finally playing great ball or just a team taking advantage of a dip in the schedule?

The answer is yes.

The starting pitching has suddenly, although not unexpectedly, become the strength of the team, holding opponents to three earned runs or fewer in the past 13 games. The bullpen has rebounded from early season struggles to become dominant. The defense has been dependable.

And the offense continues to roll even though, before Thursday, big bats such as Zobrist, Evan Longoria, Matt Joyce and Wil Myers were slumping.

"Just up and down the lineup, we feel confident," Zobrist said. "We feel somebody is going to come through every night right now."

But, yeah, even the Rays, careful not to disrespect anyone, realize they haven't exactly played the '27 Yankees of late. They aren't apologizing either.

"(Against) teams that are not doing as well," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "you really do have to put some hay in the barn. You got to."

The Rays are a season-high 13 games over .500. They are only 3-9 against the Red Sox and 20-24 against the ultra-tough AL East.

But they are 4-0 against the Marlins, 3-0 against the Twins, 3-0 against the Padres, 5-2 against the White Sox and 3-1 against the Astros. That's an 18-3 record against the league's bottom-feeders.

"Look, you go out there and you got to beat everybody," the Rays' Luke Scott said. "(But), yeah, there's a good opportunity here. You can't get ahead of yourselves and underestimate your opponent. That's a mistake. (But right now) is a good place to be."

Here's the thing. Everyone plays everyone else. Give the Rays credit for taking care of business against the bad teams. After all, the AL East-leading Red Sox are 5-5 this season against the Twins and White Sox. The Orioles are 4-5 against those two teams.

"This is the major leagues," Zobrist said. "Everyone is good. It's not easy to sweep anybody."

Here's another thing to point out. Just before this stretch of hapless teams, the Rays took two out of three against a Blue Jays team that had won 11 in a row, and then took two out of three against the AL Central-leading Tigers.

Eventually, the Rays will run out of patsies to play. In fact, coming out of the All-Star break, the Rays will have a 10-game road trip against AL East teams and there's no question Tampa Bay will have to play better against the East in the second half. Until then, the Rays still have three games against the worst team in baseball.

"Let's finish this sucker off before the break, enjoy ourselves and come back with the same intensity," Maddon said. "I want to believe it's going to carry."

If it does, it won't matter which teams the Rays beat during the regular season. They'll only be concerned with which team they will be playing in the postseason.

Back in contention, Rays deserve praise 07/11/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 1:03am]

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