Because even after staggering into the All-Star break by losing seven, losing their grip on first place as well as much of the momentum and some of the confidence they had accrued, this is still the best record they had ever had at this point — by 13 games. Their 55-39 mark is the second best in history by a team that finished with the majors' worst record the year before, and only two other of those teams — the 1903 Giants and the 1991 Braves — got to 23 games over .500, as the Rays did at 55-32. (And they were just that little teeny half-game they trail the Red Sox by from becoming the fourth of those teams to be in first place at the break.) Their improvement of .194 percentage points from last year's break (34-53, .391) to this one (.585) is the seventh best for an American League team in the past 50 years. And at their current pace — which is to win 95 games, 29 more than last season — they would match the 10th best improvement of the modern era, and fourth best in AL history.
First things first
How groundbreaking, mind-bending, logic-defying was the Rays' first half? Consider they did some things this season they hadn't done in their first 10 — some combined.
FIRST PLACE: They've been alone or tied for the top spot for 37 days; that's 21 more than in their first decade.
OVER .500: They've been on the plus side for 83 days, 11 more than in their first 10.
PEAK POINT: They got to 23 games over .500 at 55-32; they had never been more than four over at any point (and that was at 10-6 in April 1998, and 11-7 in April 1999).
MARGIN: They led the AL East by 5 games on July 6 (and after 87 games); they had never held more than a one-game advantage, and that was on April 9, 2005 — after just five games.
TIME OF YEAR: They led the AL East until losing the last game before the break; they had never been on top later into a season than April 16, 2004, nine whole games into the season, when they were tied with the Orioles and Red Sox at 5-4. The latest they had ever been alone in first was April 9 that season, when after five games they had a half-game lead over the Yankees.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT: Their last win on July 6 was their 55th, matching their total from their entire (and entirely miserable) 2002 season. The earliest they had won their 55th before was Aug. 17 (in 2004); last year it came on Aug. 31.
Dropping the Devil proved to be a popular move. With their new name, colors, logos and uniforms, the Rays were suddenly everywhere. (And having the best record in the majors for a while didn't hurt.) They became ESPN's darlings, with four national appearances and a steady stream of live interviews. They'll make their first-ever national over-the-air TV appearance when Fox shows their Aug. 23 game in Chicago. They've been regular magazine cover boys, with front-page appearances in Sports Illustrated, the Sporting News and ESPN The Magazine.
With a 55-39 (.585) record at the break, here's what the Rays need to do in their remaining 68 games to meet certain goals:
Record 71 wins 16-52 (.235)
.500 season 26-42 (.382)
90 wins 35-33 (.515)
100 wins 45-23 (.662)
Even with the weeklong losing streak, the Rays are on pace to win 95 games, and the 29-game improvement would rank as one of the game's best. Among AL teams, it would match the fourth largest:
Team, years From To Increase
Red Sox, 1945-46 71-83 104-50 +33
Orioles, 1988-89 54-107 87-75 +32.5
Browns, 1901-02 48-89 78-58 +30.5
Tigers, 2003-04 43-119 72-90 +29
A's, 1946-47 49-105 78-76 +29
A's, 1979-80 54-106 83-79 +29
Rays, 2007-08 66-96 95-67* +29
Do the math
The simple reason the Rays are doing better is they are allowing fewer runs, the result of their vastly improved defense and pitching. They're on pace to allow 282 fewer than last season, which, according to STATS Inc., would rank among the greatest improvements.
Biggest improvements in runs allowed:
Years Team From To Pct
1915-16 Phil-NL 687 463 32.6
1903-04 NY-AL 848 573 32.4
1901-02 Phil-NL 792 543 31.4
1931-32 Phil-NL 1199 828 30.9
1902-03 Cin 818 566 30.8
1971-72 Cle 747 519 30.5
1962-63 Chi-NL 827 578 30.1
2007-08 TB 944 667* 29.3
*at current pace
Correspondingly, their decrease in ERA would rank as one of the best ever:
Biggest decreases in ERA
Year Team From To Change
1930-31 Phil-NL 6.71 4.58 -2.13
1913-14 StL-NL 4.23 2.38 -1.85
1996-97 Det 6.38 4.56 -1.82
2007-08 TB 5.53 3.79 -1.74
1901-02 Cin 4.17 2.67 -1.50
Rocking the house
TV and radio ratings, merchandise sales and Web hits are all up. But the most obvious sign of the Rays' success beyond the standings has been in the seats at Tropicana Field. Or, more specifically, the lack of empty seats. The Rays have drawn 1,053,081 through 50 home games, an average of 21,062 that represents a 35.5 percent increase over last season, largest in the majors. They've had four sellouts, matching their high from any season. And it appears to matter, as they are 15-2 with home crowds of 25,000 or more and 13-1 in front of 30,000 plus. That included all five games with postgame concerts, ranked by size of crowd, with two more to come — MC Hammer on Saturday, and LL Cool J on Aug. 2:
|Trace Adkins||Gilberto Santa Rosa||The Commodores||Loverboy||Kool & The Gang|
|Result||Beat the White Sox 2-0||Beat the Marlins 4-1||Beat the Orioles 11-4||Beat the Royals 3-0||Beat the Astros 4-3|
The Rays have tried for 10 years to find a homefield advantage, and they finally figured it out, with 36 wins that match the fifth most all time before the break. Now they have to work on taking their show on the road, especially with 37 of their 68 remaining games away from the Trop. "We're like two different teams," manager Joe Maddon said. How different? Very — at least when they're pitching. Here are the numbers, with their rank in the AL:
Record Home Road
W-L 36-14 19-25
Pct. .720 (2) .432 (7)
Pitching Home Road
ERA 2.82 (1) 4.93 (10)
Opp. Avg. .218 (1) .273 (10)
Opp. OPS .619 (1) .783 (11)
BB 152 (7) 143 (8)
K 351 (4) 300 (8)
Hitting Home Road
Avg. .271 (T8) .249 (10)
Runs 229 (9) 206 (7)
HRs 43 (9) 55 (2)
OPS .763 (7) .727 (5)