ST. PETERSBURG — From here, you can see the playoffs. Can't you?
The Rays are the best they have been all season. They are hot, and they are hardy, and they are almost healthy.
All of a sudden, they can catch the ball again, which is no small thing when you consider how much of the season it was that they seemed to have forgotten how. They could always pitch the ball, of course, but lately, they have done it better than any team in baseball. And here's the wackiest part: It sounds as crazy as tin-foil hats, but lately, the Rays seem to have figured out the part about actually hitting the ball. Who saw that coming?
From here, you see confetti falling. Don't you?
Once again, the Rays are limitless. If they can pitch like this, if they can field like this, if they can hit anywhere close to this, what is beyond their reach? The playoffs? The division title? The World Series? As they approach the most important month of the season, the Rays are at their best.
From here, you see champagne. Squint, won't you?
This is what you have endured a gut-wrenching season to see. For all of the frustrations, for all of the at-bats by a motley collection of Triple A-quality infielders who seemed to be pretty much the same guy, the Rays have finally broken through the other side. Finally, they look like a team worthy of your consideration.
The new, improved Rays were at it again Monday night, winning their fifth straight 5-1 over Kansas City. Once again, they looked like a complete team on the way to somewhere.
It took long enough, didn't it? For months, the Rays looked like a team that should spend its mornings apologizing to its pitchers. The defense was lacking. The offense was an eyesore. The stars were bandaged. And no one watching seemed happy about any of it.
Then came last week's Seattle game, when Felix Hernandez threw a perfect game at the Rays. Face it: If a pitcher could hold a team to negative hits, Hernandez would have done it.
Of course, that's the time the Rays picked to get hot. The Rays are contrarians by nature, and they are never quite as good as in the moments when you have decided they are bad. An opponent turns out the light, and after a burst of convenient amnesia, the Rays find a way to shine.
Since that afternoon, the Rays have been silly good. Remember Misdemeanors' Row, that hitless bunch that drove you crazy? Since the perfect game, the Rays have 57 hits and 42 runs.
Do you know how good the Rays' hitters have been? They seemed to have their craft down pat enough that manager Joe Maddon called off batting practice for the week. Whee!
"It's starting to look like what we envisioned coming out of spring training," Maddon said. "Our pitching has really been unbelievable. Had we been able to score more runs since the break, we'd probably be in a tie for first place by now. We've been that good. Now the offense is showing up, and the defense has come back to us. I think our guys are starting to sniff it a little bit."
Maybe all of this is a reward for a season filled with flinging your remote control toward the screen. Remember back when the airlines used to give you a free ticket for a particularly turbulent flight? Think of it like that.
"I don't think there is any question we're playing the best we've played all year," said shortstop Ben Zobrist. "There is still a lot of season left to play, but we don't just want to be one of the wild cards. We want to win the division."
So how has this reassembling of a baseball team occurred?
Start with the return of Evan Longoria, who missed 85 games with a bad hamstring. Longoria still isn't completely healthy — he hasn't played third base in the dozen games since he returned — but the lineup is much more fearsome with him in it. The Rays are 12-2 since Longoria returned.
Then there was the move of Zobrist to shortstop. Short has been a very large headache for most of the season, but things calmed down once Zobrist moved in. At the plate, Zobrist's quiet success has continued. Since June 7, 62 games ago, Zobrist has hit a very nice .315.
What else? B.J. Upton has six home runs in August, and he has hit .317 over the past 10 games. Desmond Jennings is hitting .313 this month. For crying out loud, Jose Molina has a nine-game hitting streak. Jeff Keppinger is hitting .328 since the All-Star break.
Are the Rays healed? You know better. There is a quarter of the season remaining, and the schedule is hard, and there are more frustrations ahead.
These days, however, the Rays are a better team, and a bigger threat, than at any point this season. They no longer seem to be treading water until their stars heal.
From here, you can at least see an interesting September.