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It's okay to be excited about the Rays

Rookie Evan Longoria, one reason to get excited about this team, enters a happy dugout after a seventh-inning homer.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Rookie Evan Longoria, one reason to get excited about this team, enters a happy dugout after a seventh-inning homer.

ST. PETERSBURG — Today, it is permissible to dream. Even if it is still April.

Today, it is okay to brag, swagger and strut. Even if it was only three games.

Today, it is cool to be a Rays fan.

Hurry while supplies last.

Flush from a sweep of the defending world champions in front of a weekend of large crowds, and with an encore of Red Sox party tune Sweet Caroline on the public address system afterward, the temptation is to say it doesn't get any better than this.

But, of course, it does. It gets better in August, it gets sweeter in September and it gets magical in October. At least, that's what we're told.

"We know we didn't win the World Series," Jonny Gomes said. "All we did here was grab a whole bunch of momentum."

And, today, that's enough. For this is a franchise used to measuring momentum inning by inning, if not pitch by pitch. This is a franchise that has never looked down to see the rest of the division below.

The Rays have played 25 games and are tied for first. That's not a big deal for the Red Sox or Yankees, but it is uncharted territory for the American League's gloomiest outpost.

On average, the Rays have been about eight games out of first at this point. Think about that. Four weeks into a typical season and, usually, you have already abandoned all hope.

So forgive us today if we seem drunk with (Evan Longoria's) power.

"You have to learn how to handle success, just like you learn how to handle failure," reliever Trever Miller said. "We've had enough failure around here, so now it's time to learn about the other side.

"That means showing up every day the same way. Not getting too far ahead of yourself, not reading the paper, not believing the hype. People are going to get excited around here because this has never happened, and they've been waiting for it for more than a decade."

The Rays have had grand moments before. Wade Boggs gave us one night. Doug Waechter gave us another. The 12-game winning streak in the middle of 2004 was the greatest collective achievement.

But there has never been anything like this.

It is not just that the Rays zipped past Toronto, New York and Boston in the AL East in the past five days. It is not just the back-to-back sweeps of the Blue Jays and Red Sox. It is not just the big crowds, the dramatic hits or the way James Shields outpitched Josh Beckett on Sunday.

The best part is the way performance has met expectation.

The Rays are playing exactly the way you envisioned when you looked at this roster a month ago, and that has nothing to do with statistics or trends. It is an attitude. An aggressiveness. A feisty outlook.

The top three hitters went 1-for-11 with eight strikeouts on Sunday, and the Rays still won. The bullpen had to pitch six innings on Friday night, and still won. The Rays were losing 3-0 in the sixth inning against a Cy Young winner on Wednesday night, and still won.

"It's like night and day from the past," Carl Crawford said. "There's a lot of energy. A lot of positive guys around. You come in feeling like you're going to win every game.

"You see guys in here early and they're already getting ready for the game. They're not sitting around eating, watching TV, and playing video games like it used to be."

Chances are, it won't last. Even Joe Maddon, who could teach Norman Vincent Peale a few things about the power of positive thinking, was suggesting it was too early to go giddy.

But, unlike previous hot streaks, there is reason to believe this is not a fluke. Maybe the Rays won't maintain a .560 winning percentage (which, by the way, would translate to around 90 wins) but you can see them being competitive most every night.

You can see Scott Kazmir delivering a boost. You can see Carlos Pena getting hot. You can see Longoria getting better and better.

"I think people are noticing. It's hard not to," Gomes said. "We're throwing a two-hit shutout against Boston. Hitting eighth-inning, two-out homers. (Troy) Percival's coming in every night and not giving up a single run. It's not like we're squeaking through the cracks here, we're making some noise."

Yes, it is only April 28.

It is too soon to make predictions or reservations. It is too soon to start checking the out-of-town scoreboard every three minutes. It is too soon for a lot of things.

But it's not too soon to have some fun.

Their magic number is 138.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

It's okay to be excited about the Rays 04/27/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 29, 2008 5:15pm]
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