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Tampa Bay Rays need a fast start to have a chance in AL East

Not to say that the Rays need to get off to a fast start this season, but the way I have it figured, they need to win 12 out of their first 10.

Fast start? This season, the Rays need to leave skid marks. They need to break the sound barrier. They need to get off so quickly that judges are tempted to signal them for a false start.

The Rays need to start as quickly as high-speed Internet. They need to start driving in runs during the national anthem. In the marathon that is a baseball season, they need to start out like sprinters.

Otherwise, a slow start could add up to a bad finish.

Again.

In baseball, we know two things. One is that every team wants to get off to a fast start because, really, isn't that the best kind? The other is that every team that gets off to a slow start says it doesn't matter, that there is plenty of time to catch up, that April is no time to give up on a season. Teams in fourth place by May 1 always say those things.

Around Tampa Bay, we know better. Around Tampa Bay, the past two seasons are perfect examples that games in April affect the standings in the same way as games in September.

"I think getting off to a good start is huge," manager Joe Maddon said. "It really is. Especially with our group in our division. You can't afford to get behind and have to pass so many teams.

"It's like a basketball team falling behind by 20 points and then losing by two. Even though you make that surge to get back into it, it takes a lot out of you. I think that's what happened to us last year."

You remember last April, don't you? The Rays spent the better part of the month handing out rings and raising banners and picking the confetti out of their hair. It was, as Maddon describes it, "dig-me month." The Rays spent weeks listening to everyone congratulate them on the previous season, and by the time they woke up, the rest of the American League was disappearing in the distance.

By the end of April, the Rays were 9-14 and in last place in the AL East. B.J. Upton was hitting .177. Dioner Navarro was hitting .181. Gabe Gross was hitting .211. Andy Sonnanstine was 0-4 with a 7.78 ERA. Grant Balfour had a 6.14 ERA.

Want to know how bad April was? Even with their forgettable 11-game losing streak in September, it was still the worst month the Rays had. After that, the Rays never got within 3½ games of the lead.

"We were confident," Maddon said. "But I think we were distracted. We had to deal with a lot of stuff we weren't used to dealing with, and all of that injured our focus. We didn't have that singular purpose or focus of just winning. We wanted to win, but all that other stuff didn't permit us to be in the moment the way we should be."

Now, compare that to the April of 2008, the month the Rays first distanced themselves from their miserable past. The Rays were 15-12 at the end of that month, one game out, and they had just completed a series sweep of the Red Sox. On the first day of May, they took over a share of first place.

"That month gave us a reason to believe," is the way Maddon remembers it. "You show up and there is this undercurrent that you can't describe, but you can feel, because you expect something good to happen."

So what are the chances of the Rays getting off to a quick start? Well, they're still in the AL East. So it won't be easy.

They open at home with a three-game set against Baltimore, which is supposed to be better. Then they get another three against the Yankees. Going 4-2 in those six games would be a pretty fair start.

After that, the Rays leave for a 10-game road trip against the Orioles, the Red Sox and the White Sox. Given their struggles on the road, that's a tough trip for early in the season.

After that? They have three games at home against Toronto, two against Oakland and four against Kansas City (the final two of the Royals' series carry into May).

In other words, they play 23 games in 25 days in April, including 15 against division opponents. Still, 16 of the games come against teams with losing records last year. Winning 14 or 15 of those would, as they say, set up July nicely.

Start fast or die quick.

In the AL East, there may not be another choice.

Tampa Bay Rays need a fast start to have a chance in AL East 04/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 2, 2010 9:20pm]
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