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Still (gulp) in first

ST. PETERSBURG — So this is how it's going to be?

If Monday's 5-4 win in the opening game of showdown series with Boston is any indication of what the Rays' second-half drive for the playoffs will be like, then hang on for a wild three months.

"It's more fun that way," Rays reliever J.P. Howell said.

Because before they sealed the win, improving their major-league-best record to 50-32 and extending their American League East lead to 1½ games, consider all that happened, with most of the not-quite-sold-out Tropicana Field crowd of 34,145 rooting on the Rays.

There was Manny Ramirez (who apparently doesn't hit everything) striking out and Mike Lowell and Kevin Youkilis rapping hits to bring the tying run to the plate. Brandon Moss' lofty fly to right striking the B-ring catwalk and dropping in for a run-scoring double -—"When I didn't see it come out the other side I knew we had a problem," rightfielder Gabe Gross said — then a sac fly making it 5-4 with the tying run on third.

Then things really got hot, as Rays manager Joe Maddon and Troy Percival argued on the mound over whether Percival should come out due to his sore left hamstring. He did — eventually — and will be reevaluated today. And Howell came in, cold, to face righty Julio Lugo — with Maddon thinking lefty pinch-hitter Sean Casey was coming up since he'd been introduced — and still, calmly, getting the final out.

And that was — pause, catch your breath — just the ninth inning.

"I think that's how it it's going to be, a wild race all the way until the end," Howell said. "The strong go the distance and the ones that are weak fall back. So we'll find out who's strong and who's not down the stretch."

The Rays had never won their 50th game in July, much less on June 30. And, amid considerable hype since it was a battle for first place and the first meeting with the Sox since the hostile June 5 brawl, they did so in impressive fashion, and with no incidents.

Maddon said he noticed a slightly more serious, business-like demeanor during batting practice, and he raved about the focus to the point that he said he was more pleased with how they did things than what they did.

"I just liked the demeanor of the group throughout tonight's game," he said. "I think we know we're good, but I like the way we're going about it. You walk in the clubhouse right now, everybody's happy but nobody's going crazy about this whole thing."

As frantic as the end was, the Rays got there with a solid performance, doing the kinds of things that, Maddon said, "a good team does."

Take charge? James Shields and B.J. Upton took care of that. Shields set the Sox down on seven pitches without a ball leaving the infield in the first, and an amped-up Upton hit the first pitch from Justin Masterson in the bottom half over the centerfield fence.

Take advantage of mistakes? Twice Masterson, making his eighth major-league start, made the rookie mistake of issuing a two-out walk, and both times the Rays followed with a huge hit (a Gross homer, a Carlos Pena double), netting three runs.

Create opportunities? They got what was the decisive run in the seventh without a hit, cobbling three walks and scoring when Jonny Gomes hustled down the line to prevent the Sox from completing a double play.

Minimize damage? Shields pitched well, allowing two runs on five hits while working into the seventh. Grant Balfour again got two of the biggest outs, with two on and one out in the seventh. And Howell, showing that California cool, got the last one, getting Lugo to line out to short.

Be heart-stopping exciting? "I don't think we need a five-point (race-car style) seat belt yet," Gomes said. "We're doing all right."

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

Still (gulp) in first 06/30/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 2, 2008 6:52pm]

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