Make us your home page

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Rays have earned benefit of doubt by now

ST. PETERSBURG — By the time the game ends, the figures are all recalculated. The team's winning percentage drops below .600. The first baseman's batting average falls below .235. And a community's faith dips below cheerful.

It's understandable. It's expected. But, in this case, I don't think it's necessary.

Yes, the Rays had a 2002 flashback Tuesday night. The defense went wonky, the pitching was Brazelton-esque, and the game was practically over before the cleanup hitter even had his first at-bat.

And maybe you have been waiting for one of these moments. Waiting for the chance to say the season's first eight weeks were an illusion, and eventually the Rays would begin the slow drift back to reality.

But, nearly one-third of the way into the season, I have to wonder if the Rays have not earned a new reality. A place where they own the benefit of the doubt, and a secure place in the nation's conversation.

In other words, this team ain't going nowhere.

The realization has come gradually, but with a certain panache. The Rays lost three in a row in Boston, and came back to reclaim first place a week later. The Rays had consecutive walkoff losses in St. Louis, and came right back to win two of three in Oakland and, eventually, find first place again.

So, this time, they lose an ugly game to Texas and put their place atop the standings in jeopardy once more. Once, that might have seemed like a bad sign. Now, it's just a bad night.

Put another way, would you be disappointed if the Rays were not playing meaningful games in September?

"Yes," manager Joe Maddon said without hesitation. "Absolutely."

No one is saying the Rays are the team to beat in the American League East. Or that Red Sox manager Terry Francona wakes up in a cold sweat thinking about Andy Sonnanstine and his mid 80s fastball.

But the Rays have played well enough long enough to convince you that this is no fluke. That they haven't just been a young team riding a hot streak.

"We haven't been that hot, to be honest with you," closer Troy Percival said. "How many of our guys are hitting .320, .330? That's what happens when a team is on a hot streak. You see averages spike up to areas that are not common for them. If anything, most of our guys are hitting below their normal averages."

It is true, you could make the case the Rays could get even better. Carlos Pena is hitting below his career average. So are Cliff Floyd and Carl Crawford. You figure Evan Longoria is going to hit more, and Jason Bartlett, too.

That doesn't mean all of them will eventually find a groove. The game doesn't work that way. But it does suggest the Rays have been winning games with something more enduring than a few hot bats.

"I believe we're going to be able to maintain it over the course of the year. I really do," Maddon said. "There's no indication to me why it should go away because it's been built around defense and pitching. If it was just a hot streak offensively, I'd be a little more apprehensive about the whole thing.

"The way we've been winning games indicates to me that we can sustain it."

Plenty can still go wrong. If time or health catches up to Percival, the entire structure of the bullpen is in danger. If Scott Kazmir's elbow starts to ache again, the rotation looks a lot less attractive. If Bartlett has trouble, there is no adequate answer at shortstop.

Barring those calamities, the Rays have a right to expect good times ahead. They have earned that with their performance. With their resilience. With their talent.

Don Zimmer compared these Rays to a Cubs team he managed in 1989. That team was coming off four consecutive losing seasons and had a handful of kids in the starting lineup. The Cubs won 93 games and the NL East. The only difference, Zimmer said, is these Rays may be better.

"Did anybody expect this team to be where it's at today? Anybody?" Zimmer said. "It's been a thrill for me at 77 years old to sit back and watch this. A lot of people think it's luck. Well, every team needs a little luck to win. This team right now is pretty solid with a few guys who can get better."

Today, the Rays are sitting at 31-21. In the wild-card era — since 1995 — there have been 21 teams that have gotten off to a 31-21 start. Of those, 67 percent went on to reach the playoffs.

That doesn't make the Rays anything close to a sure bet. It probably doesn't even qualify them as a favorite.

But, 52 games into the season, it means they are legitimate contenders.

"We have a great deal of respect for the length of the season. And how important it is to maintain consistency through a 162-game schedule," executive VP Andrew Friedman said. "That said, from what we have seen in the first third of the season, I think the most important development is the 25 guys in that clubhouse believe we can win.

"There's a very good chance this could be a very fun summer for us."

John Romano can be reached at


Solid odds

At 31-21, the Rays would seem to have a better-than-even chance to reach the postseason, statistically speaking. Since the wild-card era began in 1995, 21 major-league teams have started 31-21, and 67 percent have made the playoffs.

Rays have earned benefit of doubt by now 05/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2008 10:45am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Tampa Bay Super Bowls: A brief history and some predictions for 2021


    At last, Tampa will host a Super Bowl again. It used to be that the Cigar City would host one a decade, but by the time February 2021 rolls around, it will have been 12 years since the epic showdown between the Steelers and Cardinals. Because it has been awhile, let's revisit those past Super Bowls while also peering …

    Santonio Holmes hauls in the game-winning touchdown in the Steelers' 27-23 Super Bowl XLIII victory over the Cardinals in 2009, the last time Tampa hosted a Super Bowl. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
  2. Rays bats go silent in second straight loss to Angels (w/video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Sure, Alex Cobb was to blame for the Rays' 4-0 loss on Tuesday.

    Derek Norris strikes out with the bases loaded as the Rays blow a golden opportunity in the seventh inning.
  3. Marc Topkin's takeaways from Tuesday's Rays-Angels game

    The Heater

    RHP Alex Cobb made mistakes on back-to-back pitches to the first two Angels hitters Tuesday, allowing homers to Cameron Maybin and Mike Trout, but otherwise gave the Rays another solid outing, working into the eighth and scattering seven hits.

  4. Rays journal: Brad Miller won't return from DL when eligible

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — 2B Brad Miller (left abdominal strain) will not return from the 10-day disabled list Friday as he hoped. While he took ground balls Tuesday, he has yet to resume running.

    Rays second baseman Brad Miller, left, with infielder Tim Beckham, says he’s letting his left abdominal strain “cool down” before testing it by running.
  5. USF baseball rallies to beat Tulane in AAC tournament opener


    CLEARWATER — With Tulane runners on first and second and two out in the top of the ninth inning Tuesday, USF's dugout watched as burly American Athletic Conference co-player of the year Hunter Williams' fly to left went deep.

    USF outfielder Chris Chatfield is congratulated by third-base coach Chris Cates after hitting a three-run homer in the third inning, tying the score at 3.