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Tampa Bay Rays' Joe Maddon stays true to a tricky course

ST. PETERSBURG — Vindication is for another day. At this point, the victory is far more valuable.

And so Joe Maddon did not even joke about it. He did not pretend, with a wink and a grin, that his magic touch had made a comeback. Instead, when B.J. Upton and Dioner Navarro finally rewarded his faith on Tuesday afternoon, the Rays manager was more content than contentious following days of second guessing.

"My memory is good. I know how important those two were to us last year," Maddon said. "All of these expectations wouldn't be here if it wasn't for B.J. and Navi. And you just don't abandon people.

"These are guys who aren't even in their prime. They're pre-prime. And so they need to know they have my support, and I think they do know that. B.J. is going to be a superstar, and Navi is one of the better catchers in the American League. If I were to do anything to injure their confidence, then shame on me."

And so this is how a couple of hits can change the tenor of a homestand. Navarro and Upton get back-to-back knocks during a seventh-inning comeback against the Orioles, and the Rays go from a potential .500 homestand to four wins in six games. They avoid the possibility of falling 71/2 games behind in the AL East, and they gain a little confidence in two key players.

"I really believe we're going to hit our stride," Maddon said. "Today was a good first step."

As patient as he seems, Maddon knows the odds have slowly been stacking higher against the Rays. He knows a loss in April or May can alter the landscape of September and October. And he knows Tampa Bay's margin for error is ever dwindling.

Which is why, when I asked him before the game if he worried his faith today might negatively impact the team's fortunes in the fall, Maddon acknowledged there was reason for concern.

"I'm not there yet," Maddon said. "I understand what you're saying. You're right. I'm not denying that. I just think this is the best way for it to work for us."

It is still early, but here's the concern:

The hole Tampa Bay has dug is pretty significant. The Rays begin a seven-game road trip today 61/2 games out of first place in the East, and the reality is most teams that far behind never come back to win the division.

Of the 54 division winners this decade, only 13 had ever been as far back as 61/2 games. And that's not the bad news. What's worse is that the hole is even deeper when you're in the AL East.

Since 1990, only one team has come back to win the East after being more than five games behind. Maybe that's just a fluke. Or maybe it means it's harder to chase down the Red Sox and Yankees than the Rangers or Mariners.

It is still early, but here's another concern:

The average wild-card team in the AL the past 10 years has won 96 games. And if the Rays plan on winning 96 or more games, they need to get hot by, oh, the time you finish brushing your teeth this evening.

Seriously, the idea of a 96-win season is growing more implausible by the hour. The Rays would have to win at a .627 clip the rest of the way just to get to 96. That's not impossible, but it's not easy. And it has to begin right now.

It is still early, but here's another concern:

The Rays are 1-8 against left-handed starting pitchers. This was their one weakness in 2008, and it was supposedly corrected by the offseason signings of Gabe Kapler and Pat Burrell.

One problem with that plan. Burrell has had roughly the same impact as a hamster running in its wheel. The Rays designated hitter has two extra base hits in his last 62 at-bats, and has fewer home runs than the shortstop or the super-utilityman.

That doesn't mean Burrell is solely to blame for the poor start. Nor, for that matter, are Upton and Navarro. It has not been one thing that has gone wrong with the Rays, it has been a combination of everything.

It has been a starting rotation that has seen its ERA rise from 3.95 last season to 4.84 this season. It is an offense that has scored four runs or fewer in 16 games, the most in the American League. It is the lack of clutch hitting, and clutch relief.

Which is why Maddon has refused to point fingers in the clubhouse. The Rays planned to win with a balanced roster, and it's still the only way they will contend.

"Making changes doesn't necessarily ensure we're going to win. The potential reward for staying the course is greater than flipping people around just for the sake of flipping them," Maddon said. "If you looked at it before the season, I think everybody would have agreed this was the right way to do things."

So Maddon stands by his players for another day.

It is still early, but not for much longer.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com

Tampa Bay Rays' Joe Maddon stays true to a tricky course 05/05/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 6, 2009 6:35am]
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