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ESPN's Steve Phillips not surprised by Tampa Bay Rays' slow start

BOSTON — Surprise over the Rays' tough start is not universal.

While fans, followers, journalists, broadcasters and other self-appointed keyboard experts 'round the Tampa Bay area have tried to figure out what's wrong, there are others who saw this coming.

"I thought it was going to be a rough year for them," said Steve Phillips, the former Mets GM turned ESPN analyst who will be in the three-man booth tonight when the Rays make their first Sunday Night Baseball appearance since April 2000.

"It's a different thing to play with expectations. You're not surprising anyone; no one is surprised when you come to town. It's just different."

What Phillips has been most surprised about is the inconsistency of their offense. But rather than C Dioner Navarro or so-far singles-hitting DH Pat Burrell, Phillips lays it mostly on leadoff man CF B.J. Upton. And he ventures into some interesting analysis.

"The only guy I'm really worried about is Upton," Phillips said. "He had a down offensive year last year, and he's having a down offensive year so far this year.

"You start to worry if he's going to put up the great numbers. And you start to wonder if the year before, when he put up the great numbers (.300, 24 homers, 82 RBIs in 2007) is the one we should be surprised about, not the down year."

Phillips hasn't dismissed the Rays yet, saying, "I thought they would stay competitive, and I thought they would be a 90-win team. … And I'm still confident they'll be one of the top three teams."

He expects the Rays to get better as the season progresses, though not so much because their schedule gets easier as because they should improve.

"One thing about the Rays, they're still a young club, so they tend to get better over the course of the year," Phillips said. "There's been time for people to look at them and figure out how to attack them and approach them, and now they have to make the adjustments and adjust back."

And, like team officials, Phillips says the calendar is still on their side.

"It still qualifies as early, in my opinion," he said. "If you get to June 1 and things aren't feeling right, then you're one-third the way in, and you should have some level of concern."

ESPN's Steve Phillips not surprised by Tampa Bay Rays' slow start 05/09/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 10, 2009 8:07am]
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