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No reason to think Tampa Bay Rays can't continue to play close to this level

They cannot keep this up. Time after time, night after night, you tell yourself this. And then the Rays go out and win another game.

They cannot keep this up. Balls will get lost in the lights, and grounders will take bad hops, and some nights, the opponent will be pretty good, too. You know this. Baseball has its own gravity, and throughout history it has made a pretty firm statement that nobody — nobody — wins at this rate over the course of a season.

They cannot keep this up. Sooner or later, bad things are bound to happen because, in baseball, bad things always do. There is a lot of season left and a lot of games against the bankers of New York. Hitters will go into slumps, and umpires will make questionable calls, and sometimes, the ball will scoot between your knees.

No, you remind yourself again, the Rays cannot keep up this staggering pace.

Then again, why can't they?

By now, this is more than just a good start. This is a good team. Despite Saturday's loss, through 30 games the Rays have left skid marks and broken sound barriers. They are moving faster than a 16-year-old with a new car. They have won at home and away, in daylight and in darkness, in warm weather and in cold, in close games and in runaways. Best of all, they have won in Boston.

So remind me again:

Why can't they keep on speeding?

When things are going this well, it is human nature to warn yourself that it cannot last. Sooner or later, you acknowledge that the ride will end. It's a form of self-protection. It's a piece of logic.

Yet, the most impressive part of this Rays start is that it doesn't look as if this is a team playing over its head. These pitchers ought to befuddle hitters. These hitters should score runs. No, maybe the Rays won't win 22 of their next 30, but why shouldn't they win, say, 18? Maybe 20? That's a pretty good pace, too.

"I see no reason why we can't keep it up," Rays manager Joe Maddon said by telephone Saturday. "Obviously, winning at this rate is something of an anomaly. But if we pay attention to the process — our pregame work, our preparation, running out balls — there is no reason we can't sustain success."

Ask yourself this: Of all of the Rays, who do you think is over-achieving?

Evan Longoria, maybe? He's a great player, yes, but he probably won't finish the season hitting .333.

Carl Crawford, perhaps? Crawford is playing as if the accountants of every team in baseball are watching, which, let's face it, they are. He's hitting .316, which is 20 points higher than his career average, so that number is probably coming down some, too.

Still, when a guy is playing for his next contract, that's a pretty good incentive. Maybe that's why it didn't bother anyone when Sports Illustrated quoted (or misquoted, if you believe Crawford) him as saying he was gone at the end of the year. To be honest, that's what most of us think. If the Rays are going to have a $60 million payroll, how can they justify paying a quarter of it to their leftfielder? Answer: They can't.

In other words, it doesn't matter what Crawford says. It matters how he plays. And right now, he's lights out.

Maddon? Some will suggest that he's the guy performing over his head. It has always amused me, this nitpicking of a manager who has won more than any other in franchise history.

Even with the Rays owning the best record in baseball, the e-mail is packed with those who think Maddon is on a lucky streak. There are those, it seems, who think Maddon had nothing to do with the success of '08 and everything to do with the disappointment of '09. Hey, you can't have it both ways. Either managers matter, or they don't.

Yes, Maddon rests players. Every manager does. Yes, he pulls pitchers. And so far, those pitchers have stayed fairly healthy. Also, he has the best record in baseball. In a bottom-line business, that's a pretty good argument.

Who else can you accuse of overachieving? Willie Aybar? John Jaso? Reid Brignac?

The thing is, for every player off to a good start, you can find another one who should increase his batting average as the season goes along. Ben Zobrist, for instance. And Carlos Peña. And B.J. Upton.

"If you look at our batting average as a group, we're probably underachieving," Maddon said.

Given it all, why can't the Rays play, say, .700 baseball? Maybe even .710 or so?

Back in 2001, remember, the Mariners played .716. In 1954, the Indians played .721 ball. The '98 Yankees played .704.

So why not the Rays?

So far, they have won 22 out of 30. You know how good that is? The 1927 Yankees, Murderer's Row, didn't do that. The '34 Cardinals, the Gas House Gang, didn't do that. The '75 Reds, the Big Red Machine, didn't do that. The '69 Mets, the Amazing Mets, didn't do that. (Those teams won 21, 18, 18 and 14 games of their first 30, respectively.)

Here's a statistic for you. Of the 16 teams that won 21 of their first 28 games, all but three made the playoffs that year.

Here's another stat: None of those teams had to play this many times against the Yankees, who are almost as hot as the Rays, or the Red Sox, who are aging but still talented.

Is a slump inevitable?

History suggests that, at some point, the Rays will hit a patch of turbulence.

Take the '66 Orioles, for instance. Baltimore won the World Series. Yet, after Aug. 1, the Orioles were a 28-28 team.

It happens. In 1969, the Cubs were on their way before going 9-18 after Sept. 1. In 2005, the White Sox got off to a great start then stumbled their way to a 27-27 record in July and August. In 1972, the Mets started off 23-7 then went 34-47 over the next three months. The '02 Red Sox were 23-7, too, but they were only 10-16 in June and only 12-15 in August.

So, yeah, things happen. Players get hurt and pitchers go into funks and teams lose their way. In baseball, it's always easier to cool off than to stay hot.

On the other hand, have you seen these Rays lately?

At this point, speed bumps wouldn't slow them down.

No reason to think Tampa Bay Rays can't continue to play close to this level 05/08/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 8, 2010 9:18pm]
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