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Tampa Bay Rays making this summer worthy of your time

For a baseball fan, summer has no real need of a calendar. Box scores replace days, and standings measure the temperature.

Which is why, around here, it feels like summer has come early to 2010.

The Rays have the best record in baseball and arrived in Yankee Stadium Wednesday night for a quick series against the team with the second-best record. Admittedly, it's just two games, and it's only mid May. Or, to put it another way, the season is halfway to the halfway mark.

Yet there is potential to this summer. There is potential to this pennant race. First of all, it's pretty uncommon for a team to be playing at a .700 clip this late in May as the Rays have done. And it's rarer still to have baseball's two best records lumped in the same division.

None of which guarantees these two teams will still be playing at such a blistering pace come September. But, then again, that may not even be necessary. As long as they both stay healthy, as long as they're both around .600, this could feel like an extended version of The Great Chase just about every day in different ballparks around America.

"That's part of what makes baseball great. And in some ways, it's part of what hurts baseball. It's such an investment in your life," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "Football is three hours on a Sunday afternoon and you're going to feel good or you're going to feel crappy, but it's over the next day. Baseball takes an investment. It is like reading a book. You live with the ups and downs every day."

This has the potential to be different than Tampa Bay's pennant race of 2008. Not better, just different. That first pennant race caught most of us by surprise. It had a "Holy smoke!" factor to it. You knew the Rays were better, you knew they could finish above .500, but it was late in the summer before you actually came to believe they were serious contenders.

That obviously won't happen in 2010. More was expected of the Rays this season, and they have delivered almost daily. They have been in first place on 36 of the season's first 46 days. And they have been beside the Yankees almost the whole time.

"What's going on between the Yankees and Rays right now is good for us. It pushes us daily. We want to stay on top of them, and they want to stay right with us," manager Joe Maddon said. "I don't watch the standings too closely, but I pay attention to what the Yankees are doing every day.

"I mean, this is a blast. It's an absolute blast being a part of an everyday race. I remember when I was a kid, I would follow the Cardinals every single day from the start of the season until the last game of the World Series. Every day, waking up and reading the papers, or if I couldn't find the score, asking around until I found out what they did. That is great stuff.

"And if we can electrify this area with that kind of baseball attitude, that is about as good as we can do. I'm sure that's going on right now, and I'd like to think more people are becoming involved because of what is going on."

The beauty of a 162-game race is you never know what moments are going to matter. Does a victory in mid May matter less than a pennant-clinching game on the final weekend of the regular season?

The Tigers had a three-game lead in the American League Central in the final days of last season before stumbling into a tie with the Twins and eventually losing a one-game playoff. Detroit fans may remember how the team lost four of its final five games to fall out of the postseason, but a three-game sweep by the Twins back in mid May was just as critical.

Still, there is no urgency today. No feeling that the Rays needed to leave the Bronx tonight with a lead bigger than when they arrived. Frankly, the wild card has taken some of the do-or-die out of division races, and Boston's slow start has given the Rays added cushion.

Instead, it is more a feeling of anticipation. Of what this summer might become if Tampa Bay pitchers continue throwing darts, and Yankees hitters keep driving balls to rightfield.

"We're not there yet, but there is nothing better than a real pennant race," Hickey said. "Everything is magnified. The losses are more bitter, the wins are sweeter, the moments in the game are bigger. It's the little moments that you'll remember. You spend all year, all your career at this, and now it's coming to fruition every day when you come to the ballpark."

If you watch every Rays game between now and the end of the regular season, you will see something like 40,000 pitches.

Many of them will not matter. Most will be forgotten by the next morning.

But one of those pitches could end up being the stuff of Tampa Bay lore.

You just never know which one.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays making this summer worthy of your time 05/19/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 20, 2010 10:04am]

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