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It's official: Tampa Bay Rays are a playoff contender

ST. PETERSBURG — It begins with the twitch of a toe. It begins with the flutter of an eyelid. It begins with the corpse sitting up and asking for a bat.

As it turns out, the Rays weren't dead after all. To speak for the rest of the amateur coroners out there, well, oops.

The Rays re-entered the baseball season Wednesday. After all the disappointments, after all the doubts, they are back in the division race, back in the wild-card race, back among the American League teams that matter.

Fifty-four games to go, a third of a season, and once again all things are possible.

Suddenly the Rays have new life. They beat Boston for the second straight night Wednesday to move within three games of the wild card spot. It was their fifth victory in six games, and finally they're playing like the contender everyone expected them to be.

"Last year we learned to win when we were ahead (in the standings)," manager Joe Maddon said. "This year we have to learn to win by coming from behind."

Three games behind the Red Sox? Yeah, there is plenty of time to make that up. Five-and-a-half behind the East-leading Yankees? That's going to be tougher, but no, it isn't impossible.

In a way, that's the most surprising news of all. This is a season that has been measured by its shortcomings, and what it had added up to was 108 games in which everyone compared autopsies.

It was the sporadic hitting, or it was the starting pitching. It was the defensive falloff, or it was all the strikeouts. It was the men left on base, or it was the men who left the clubhouse after last season. It was Pat Burrell, or it was Dioner Navarro. It was a botched lineup card, or it was a misplaced bag of catchers' equipment. It was the money spent by the Yankees or the trades made by the Red Sox.

It was always something, and it was never as good as last year.

And still, it could be.

"We never thought we were out of it," said reliever J.P. Howell. "But I think the urgency has kicked in. When that kicks in and the instincts kick in, that's when you play your best. We tried to kick-start the urgency a month ago, and we battled it and battled it and battled it. We're playing much better, but we have a long way to go."

Said outfielder Gabe Gross: "Through all of the ins and outs and all of the ups and downs, I don't think there has been a guy in here who didn't expect to play in late October."

That says something about the Rays, and it says something about baseball. The season is a thousand-mile march, across thorns and broken glass, and despite all the underachievement, a talented team is going to have time to gather itself.

For the Rays, this is that time. There is exactly one-third of a season to go, and there are reasons to believe.

Take the starting pitching, for instance. When David Price left the game after six innings Wednesday, it was the Rays' eighth consecutive quality start (six innings or more pitching, three runs or fewer allowed). That's the kind of pitching that strengthens the bullpen, the kind of pitching that gives a lineup a reason to believe.

Consider the schedule. Of the Rays' remaining 54 games, they play 20 against the Blue Jays and Orioles. And if the Rays want to take matters into their own hands, they have six left against the Red Sox, seven against the Yankees and six against the Rangers, also a wild-card contender.

Consider Tropicana Field. Once when you said no one wanted to go to the Trop, you were talking about fans. Now you're talking about opposing teams. The Rays have won 20 of their last 26 at home, and they've won more games at home than either New York or Boston this year.

Consider the bullpen, which is fourth in the majors in ERA.

Consider the feel in the clubhouse, which suddenly has the air of a contender.

"We're almost there," said Maddon. "The thing I do like is the intensity within the group. We're starting to build that crescendo effect where you believe you're going to win, and we have to do that every night. It just seems to be increasing in intensity, and that's a good thing."

You can't help but wonder what this season would look like if the Rays hadn't been so awful in April, if they hadn't been swept by the Indians, if they hadn't taken as long to name Howell as closer.

What does it mean? It means a chance. Let's face it: The Rays still strike out too much. They still leave far too many men on base. The hitting still fades in and out like an AM radio signal. Maddon will tell you there were a couple of defensive plays that should have been made Wednesday. And yes, the Yankees and Red Sox are still pretty darn good.

But after spending months searching for a pulse on this team, yeah, this is better.

"We cannot ebb and flow anymore," Maddon said. "There has to be a sustaining of this kind of energy every night for the rest of the year. Period."

Who knows? If that happens, perhaps the rest of us can call off the funeral.

Finally.

Baseball

It's official: Tampa Bay Rays are a playoff contender 08/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 6, 2009 7:39am]

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