ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays haven't had things easy.
Not with the injuries they've sustained, the lack of offense they've had to overcome and the poor timing that seven of their first 19 series were against teams in first place at the time and eight others against opponents with .500 or better records.
But as they headed to Boston on Monday night with the American League's best record, things are about to get more difficult.
And more interesting.
By the time they return at the end of next week, they'll have visited a Red Sox team many consider the league's most formidable (and swept them in their last visit), a Rangers team (with Josh Hamilton) that is among the majors' most offensive at home, and an Angels team that leads the AL West and looks blessed in doing so, with four walkoff wins in the past week. And all without injured closer Troy Percival.
And greeting them back at the Trop will be the Marlins, one of the surprises of the National League, and the Cubs, who have the best record in the majors.
"It's a tough road right now," manager Joe Maddon said. "But as I've often said, in order to be the best, you have to beat the best, and it's a great challenge for us. It will give us a great idea of exactly where we are and how good we actually are, the kind of depth that we thought we had and if we actually are playing that championship caliber baseball or not."
As much as the Rays spread the mantra about not making any game or series bigger than another over the six-month season, executive vice president Andrew Friedman said he expects them to respond to the tough challenge by playing better, in what after the past 10 seasons sounds like a role reversal.
"The way we look at it is that our expectation is to play in October," he said. "So knowing the competitiveness of our guys, we'll get up for those games. There's times when you may overlook a certain opponent, if it's a team at the bottom of the standings and we're playing a first-place team next. So I think this keeps you mentally sharp and focused when we've got this kind of stretch in front of us."
For all the good the Rays have done in compiling a 35-22 record through the first third of the season, most of it has been at home, where they have a 24-10 record (and won 20 of their past 23, including three of four from another first-place team, the White Sox).
And very little has come on the road, where they have played a major-league low 23 games and are 11-12. Their ERA is more than two runs higher on the road, 4.93-2.81, and their team average nearly 20 points lower, .252-.270 (though, oddly, they average more runs, 4.8-4.3).
"These are the moments you've got to go through," Maddon said. "You've got to beat the better teams, you've got to beat them on their home turf because that's where it's going to be fought at the very end. I like it, and I think our players are ready for it. I think they embrace the opportunity."
First things first, and the extended exam starts tonight in Boston, where the Sox have a remarkable 21-5 record. After sweeping the Sox at the Trop in late April, the Rays were beaten up pretty well at Fenway the next weekend, outscored 26-10 with none of their three starters lasting more than four innings. The only good thing that came out of it was the way the Rays rebounded, winning seven of their next eight and 19-of-26.
"We didn't look like the team that we'd been for those three days," Carl Crawford said. "We just got beat those three games. Hopefully we can raise the intensity level and bring more intensity to the games this time."
Matt Garza, who starts tonight, expects a fierce battle.
"We beat them up down here and we p---ed them off, and that's fine," he said. "We don't have anything to prove. We're just going to go up there and try to keep our thing going. We're not worried about what they're going to do."
Plus, they have their own concerns.
"Our schedule this year has been unbelievable," starter James Shields said. "It seems like every team when we go play them, they're in first place. And that's the way we want it. We want to play those good teams just to see how good we are."
Soon enough, they'll find out.
Marc Topkin can be reached at