Tampa Bay Rays save season with successful homestand

ST. PETERSBURG

Forgive the drama and indulge the hyperbole, but I think we have just witnessed one of the most important homestands in Rays history.

Eight days, six victories and one resuscitation of a season.

And before you shout, I know that might be an overstatement. If, in July, the Rays are 10 games behind and their highest-paid players are leaving town in a rummage sale, feel free to remind me how melodramatic this sounds on April 22.

But if Tampa Bay is still playing meaningful games come September, you may want to give thanks for a stretch of victories in April.

Don't believe me? Then you probably don't recall what happened to the Rays in 2009, when they started slowly and kept insisting it was still early. But April eventually turned into May and May turned into June and the season turned into a disappointment.

Or, to put it another way, in the past 15 years, only one team has ever had a losing record in April (the 2005 Yankees at 10-14) and come back to win the American League East.

Which is one of the reasons people say you cannot win a pennant in April but you can lose one.

I recently asked Rays manager Joe Maddon if he bought into that theory.

"I don't buy into any kind of blanket statements in general, but I definitely think it makes it more difficult, especially when you have to climb over people," Maddon said. "Who are we climbing over? If you don't have to climb some severe mountains, i.e. New York, i.e. Boston, then it's somewhat more palatable.

"But when you have to climb those mountains, it makes it a lot more difficult. I learned that in '09."

Just like this season, the Rays were the defending AL East champions in 2009.

And just like this season, they got off to a horrible start.

The Rays were 8-14 and 6½ games out of first on April 29 that year. No one knew it at the time, but they were already dead in the water. They never caught the Yankees. And the stress of playing catch-up all season eventually wore them down.

"Constantly being behind takes a lot out of you; especially in this division," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "It was definitely important for us to have this week."

You could fill a bookshelf with stories of teams that have rallied late to chase a leader down in September. But dramatic comebacks are rare in the AL East.

In fact, they have been limited to a small handful of modest September charges since realignment in 1905.

Only two teams have ever trailed after Aug. 1 and come back to win the division. The 2010 Rays were 2½ games behind on Sept. 8, and the '05 Yankees were four games back on Sept. 8.

That's it. Every other division winner has essentially coasted to the title.

"It's certainly hard to play catch-up in this division, no question about that," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said earlier this week.

"Fortunately, no one had as good of a start as our bad one. So it's been more bunched."

It is not critical for the Rays to be leading the AL East at the end of April. A winning record isn't even that important as long as they're not too far below .500.

The key is making sure the distance between Tampa Bay and the top of the division is not greater than a handful of games.

Nine games into the season, the Rays were already trailing by five games in the East. To put that into perspective, the greatest deficit they had all of last season was four games.

By winning a pair of games in Boston and taking a four-game series each from Minnesota and Chicago at home, the Rays cut the deficit to a much more manageable number in a little more than a week's time.

Considering it has been done with Evan Longoria on the disabled list and Manny Ramirez on a TSA watch list, the turnaround has been even more remarkable.

The Rays still have one of the weakest offenses in the big leagues but have been carried by pitching and defense, which is exactly the way things were planned.

"Looking down the road, this is going to be very big," Maddon said. "I've talked about it, and I mean it. When you get behind several clubs in this division, it can be really hard, almost nearly impossible, to catch up.

"To get back right into the thick of things this quickly, obviously, permits us to feel good about where we're at."

.Fast facts

In the East, don't dig a deep hole

On April 10, the Rays were already five games out of first in the American League East. How important was it to stop the bleeding? Since realignment in 1995, only two teams have won the division when trailing by more than five games at any point in the season. The four biggest comebacks in the division during that time:

YearTeam Deficit Date

2005Yankees 9May 7

2009Yankees 61/2May 12

2002Yankees 5May 9

2008Rays 5April 22

Tampa Bay Rays save season with successful homestand 04/21/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2011 10:46pm]

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