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Red Sox, Yankees expect challenge from Rays

NEW YORK — The past week seemed to be so much about what the Rays lost: the seven straight games, the five-game American League East lead and at least some of the confidence that carried them through their remarkable run.

But the Red Sox looked at it as what they gained, reclaiming first place and making sure the Rays knew it wasn't going to be easy.

"I think that the one message we hopefully sent to them is that we'll always be here," Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "We're not going to go away. Which I think they probably know that."

But the Sox and the Yankees don't expect the Rays to go away, either. And it was clear at Monday's All-Star media day that the impression the Rays had made on their fiercest competitors was not diminished by the bad week.

"They can definitely stay in the race," Boston's Kevin Youkilis said. "They have good pitching and they have a good team. For them to stay in the race, they've just got to keep pitching well."

The Rays consider the skid just part of what happens in a 162-game season, something that every team goes through at a certain point.

And, as it turns out, they have a big sympathizer on that point.

As in Boston's Big Papi.

The same David Ortiz who two weeks ago questioned whether the Rays had enough experience to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees said he expects the Rays to remain competitive.

"I think they'll be fine, man," Ortiz said. "They have a good team, I've got to give you that. Their pitching is maybe one of the best in the East, so that's all taken care of."

Ortiz, sounding a bit like Rays manager Joe Maddon, suggested that the way to put their struggles behind them is to focus on what they've done right to get to this point. (Even if he wasn't aware they'd changed their name along the way.)

"All I can tell you is that if I would be playing for the Devil Rays, I would sit down and analyze things like where we were last year at this point to where we are this year at this point," Ortiz said. "Pull the positive stuff out of it, and not be thinking about the negative stuff, because that just gets things worse."

That could be prescient advice. Because the deeper the Rays get into the race, the more difficult it will be for their young, and relatively inexperienced, squad.

"Truthfully, it's going to get a little tougher," said Cubs, and former Rays, manager Lou Piniella. "It's going to get a little tougher when the games become more meaningful, and when teams start pointing at them as opposed to Boston or New York."

From what the Red Sox and Yankees were saying, they expect a three-way battle the rest of the way. As it is now, the Sox (57-40) lead the Rays by a half-game (55-39) and the Yankees by six.

"There's two teams in front of us, Boston and Tampa, and both are outstanding teams," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I think it's going to go to the end. And I wouldn't be surprised if the division is decided by one game."

"I think they know we're going to be there at the end," Boston's Dustin Pedroia said. "We have a great team; they have a great team.

"The season has a lots of up and downs. A lot. We understand that. We knew it when we played them and they swept us. They were hot, everything went their way. They were playing good baseball and they were pitching well. And there's times when we're doing that. So at the end of the year we'll find out."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Red Sox, Yankees expect challenge from Rays 07/14/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 16, 2008 7:20pm]
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