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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 romano@sptimes.com.

>>FAST FACTS

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]

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