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Tampa Bay Rays get swagger back in sweep of Texas Rangers

ST. PETERSBURG

This is who they can be. This is what they can do. This is how they should play.

For three games, the Rays were everything you ever wanted. They hit. They pitched. They ran the bases. They played defense. They closed out games. They raised a pretty good opponent like a piñata and spent three days whacking at it.

Pretty much they reminded the world why they have the best record in baseball, along with the Yankees.

This was the Rays at their best, at their most complete. Put it this way: If their series against the Texas Rangers really was a preview of the playoffs, then the Rays' response can be summed up like this:

Bring it on.

For three days, the Rays took the Rangers' lunch money. They outscored the Rangers 24-11. They hit .327 with three homers, two triples and eight doubles. They got three fine starting performances from David Price, Matt Garza and James Shields. They got two fine finishing performances from Rafael Soriano. They coaxed Evan Longoria's bat out of a coma and B.J. Upton's out of the morgue.

They came from behind to beat Cliff Lee. They shut down the dangerous Josh Hamilton, holding him to a 1-for-10 series. They grabbed a piece of first place. They got back Carlos Peña. They managed not to lose Jason Bartlett despite Bartlett lowering his helmet like Mike Alstott at the goal line.

And they won.

And won.

And won again.

So, how has your week been?

In other words, the Rays have rarely been more impressive. It was the first time the Rays have swept a first-place team since May 2008. It ran the team's record against the Yankees, Twins and Rangers — the rest of the AL playoff field if the postseason began today — to a combined 15-10.

"It says that if we put together all aspects of our game, we're pretty dangerous," said Shields, whose own performance suggested he isn't as close to losing his spot in the rotation as some fans would suggest. "When we hit and pitch the way we did this series, we're hard to beat."

And if this really was a playoff preview? "It's too early to talk about that," centerfielder Upton said, "but I like our chances."

Of course, the challenge for the Rays will be to keep it up. For a team that has won as consistently as this one, the journey has been fairly inconsistent. There are too many sub-.250 hitters in the lineup, and the hitting fades in and out, and Shields has struggled.

That's why this series was so important. It suggests the Rays may be at their best at the most important time of the season.

Take Longoria, for instance. It had been 19 games (and 75 at-bats) since he had a home run. In his previous 22 games, Longoria had hit only .214 and had only nine RBIs.

Against the Rangers, however, Longoria seemed to find his stroke. He was 7-for-12 with eight RBIs and five extra-base hits.

Upton? He was fairly dangerous himself. He hit .385 against the Rangers, and over his past nine games, he's hitting .357. His overall average is still only .243, but that's as high as it has been since May 1.

Just to be fair, it should be mentioned that the Rangers limped into Tropicana Field. They played without Nelson Cruz. They played without Ian Kinsler. They played the last two games without Michael Young.

"If this were the playoffs, I guess we'd be moving on," Longoria said, grinning. "We were pretty good in all aspects. But we know if we play them again, they'll be a different team. Still, if we can play like we did, it's going to be a fun stretch run."

Looking back, maybe that's why this series looked so good. There have been so many moments when things haven't looked smooth or powerful or dangerous. Just wondering, but has a team that won 74 of its first 120 games ever had so many grumbling fans?

A series like this can change things. Ask yourself: When is the last series where the Rays looked this good. Maybe back in April, when they beat Boston four times in a row, back before the Red Sox were so beaten up. But in that series, the Rays hit only .204. And again, it was April.

"I think everyone at this point understands that the games are really starting to become big," Longoria said. "These home series are becoming even more important. We need to win when we're at home."

The key, of course, is the hitting. The Rays are going to play good defense. They're going to get good starting pitching. The middle relief was wobbly the past three games — the only hiccup in the sweep — but the late-inning relief is deadly.

If the Rays are going to keep it up, they need to keep swinging. If Longoria and Upton can keep it up, the Rays can win the East yet.

And, yeah, it could be a fun stretch run.

Tampa Bay Rays get swagger back in sweep of Texas Rangers 08/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 19, 2010 7:19am]
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