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Rays rounded fluke and headed for legit

ST. PETERSBURG — Last year's team MVP is on the disabled list.

Doesn't matter.

The shortstop is injured before Thursday's first pitch.

Doesn't matter.

The commissioner disses the Trop, they lead the league in suspensions and the bullpen blows a lead against the best team in the majors.

And none of it matters a darn bit.

For, in one glorious 72-hour stretch, the Rays could not be beaten. Not by the Cubs and not by circumstances. So cross off another day on the calendar, and eliminate another shred of doubt.

The Rays may not be on top of the division this morning, but it kind of feels like they are on top of the world. Another big crowd, another thrilling game, another opportunity to bury the past.

"We didn't have Boston or New York on the interleague schedule this year," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said before the game. "And I thought we had caught a break."

Somewhere along the line, the Rays have evolved from curiosity to phenomenon. They have reached the point where a pennant race is not just a possibility, but an expectation.

Memorial Day has passed, the Fourth of July is coming, and the Rays have the second-best record in the American League. They are nine games away from the season's midpoint and have a 31/2-game lead in the wild-card race.

"We've gone way past fluke. We're over that hump now," designated hitter Cliff Floyd said. "This team is good enough to keep playing like this all year. If we aren't playing (meaningful) games in September, it's because we screwed up."

The incredible part of all this is there is still room for improvement. You don't look at the lineup and see a bunch of guys playing over their heads. If anything, you keep waiting for the hitting to catch up to the pitching and defense.

You figure Carlos Pena will come off the disabled list and eventually begin to earn his fat new contract. You figure B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria will continue to grow. You figure Carl Crawford was overdue for his big moment Thursday night, and should have several more as the summer heats up.

"Get used to this," Floyd said. "Get used to these kind of games because this team is not going to quit. We're going to lose games, but we're not going to stop coming at you. We're not going to stop playing good, solid baseball."

They have already had plenty of excuses at their disposal. Scott Kazmir, Troy Percival and Pena have all been on the disabled list. They have had numerous opportunities to collapse. They have been swept twice by Boston and, 20 games into the season, were below .500.

Yet every time you think they're heading toward their familiar slide into the baseball abyss, the Rays have come back stronger than before.

"We do have a lot of young guys in here, but we also have a lot of tough guys," reliever Trever Miller said. "They're young, but they've already been through a lot the past few years here. They've lived through adversity, and they don't want to go back there."

The Rays have now swept first-place teams in the East (Red Sox), West (Angels) and Central (Cubs). They are not beating up lightweights, and they are not slipping between the cracks.

Tampa Bay has the kind of team that seems resistant to slumps. Kazmir and James Shields are too good to allow long losing streaks, and the defense is too solid to give away cheap losses.

That doesn't mean there aren't pitfalls ahead. The Rays have played a disproportionate number of games at home (40) vs. the road (32). And the back of the rotation can still make your stomach queasy on any given night.

But watch Joe Maddon make exactly the right move at exactly the right time, and you begin to believe. Watch Grant Balfour come up from Triple A to provide key outs, and you begin to get excited. Watch Willy Aybar work a walk to lead off the seventh inning against the Cubs last night, and you begin to wonder if July will be even better than June.

And the best part has gone largely unnoticed in the last few days. Beginning with Saturday's victory against the Marlins, the Rays have averaged more than 30,000 fans per game.

So now, after seven consecutive seasons of having the lowest attendance in the American League, the Rays have moved past Kansas City and their per-game average is over 20,000 for the first time since the 1990s.

Yup, the Rays are finally getting serious.

And ain't it fun?

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.

Rays rounded fluke and headed for legit 06/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 11:17am]

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