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Beating Yankees has Rays looking even more like real deal

Matt Garza delivers against the Yankees during a Rays victory that further chips away at any lingering doubts.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Matt Garza delivers against the Yankees during a Rays victory that further chips away at any lingering doubts.

ST. PETERSBURG — Every day, the neighborhood looks a little more familiar.

Every game, the success looks a little more routine.

The Rays have won once again, and what's the big deal about that? They have knocked around another of baseball's brand names, and why should anyone be surprised? They have climbed a little higher over .500, and honestly, who didn't see it coming?

By now, the Rays are more than another good baseball story. By now, they are more than a plucky bunch of overachievers. By now, they are more than another young team that is off to another fast start.

More and more, the Rays look like a team that has been reinvented.

More and more, they resemble a team that has been built to last.

There is something solid about this team, something sturdy. You could see it again Monday night, when the Rays blasted the Yankees 7-1, but the truth of it is that you have been able to see it all season long. There is nothing fluky about their start, nothing artificial about their place in the standings.

Best of all, there is nothing to believe that their success is going to end any time soon.

Oh, there are people who are braced for it. Around here, fans have learned to distrust success in its brief appearances over the years, and they tend to believe more in what they have seen than in what they are seeing. Even as the Rays celebrate, there are those who wait for them to stumble. Even at the Rays' brightest moments, there are those who expect them to fade.

Live in a cellar long enough, and it gets easy to be skeptical. And so there are those who search the sky every morning to see if chunks of it have fallen. There are those who wait for the water to rise, for the shoe to drop and for the big kids to get out of school.

And meanwhile, the Rays win.

Again. And again.

How long will it be until this is not surprising? How many wins until the "over" is dropped from their "achievement?" And how long will it be before you believe this reality?

"We haven't won any flukes," Rays relief pitcher Troy Percival said. "We can be better than we've been."

"I don't think we're overachieving," manager Joe Maddon said. "We're right about where we should be."

That's the thing with the Rays: There is nothing about their success that hints that it is fleeting.

True, good starts sometimes come to bad teams. In 2006, Colorado was 21-16 on May 13, and it finished 10 games under .500. In 2005, Baltimore was 22-13, and it finished 74-88. The same year, the Dodgers were 21-14 and finished 71-91.

Want more? In '98, the Brewers started out 17-9, and they lost 88 games. In '85, the Cubs were 18-11, and they won only 77. The '92 Giants started out 24-16, and they lost 90 games.

It happens. Some teams ride hot bats to early success. Some win an unexpected start from a mediocre pitcher, and they find themselves perched on top of the standings like a sparrow in an eagle's nest. Then they fall.

The makeup of this Rays' team, however, suggests it can avoid such a collapse.

For one thing, the strengths of this team have been its defense and its bullpen. Both of those are more slump-resistant than a team's offense.

For another, none of the Rays' hitters are having larger-than-life seasons so far. Aki Iwamura and Jason Bartlett are just starting to hit. Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria figure to be better as the season goes along. Don't they?

For a third, the Rays have been injured enough to bury one of the old Tampa Bay teams. Matt Garza and Scott Kazmir have just eight starts between them. Cliff Floyd has been hurt.

"We haven't put it all together yet," Pena said.

Does any of this mean that the Rays are going to make a legitimate playoff run? It's too soon to go that far. They still have to prove they have the mental toughness and the physical depth to endure a baseball season. They will have to withstand losing streaks and key injuries and opponents who can throw money at whatever shortcomings they have.

"We still have a lot to prove yet," Maddon said. "It doesn't flip overnight. We can not stop pushing. We cannot expect anybody to give anything to us. We've got to take from everybody else."

That said, this is better. Garza's start Monday suggests that, yes, he deserved to be the third name on the shirt (the one that proclaimed James Shields, Kazmir and him to be part of a potentially great rotation). The Rays have never had a defense like this. A bullpen, either.

Also, it has never had this kind of hunger. Maddon was talking about his first year here, and he remembered that a two-game winning streak would make the Rays complacent. Those days are gone.

Here's a question: Why can't this team finish above .500?

More and more, that seems reasonable.

Beating Yankees has Rays looking even more like real deal 05/12/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2008 1:20pm]

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