ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays aren't happy with where they are in the standings, the residual of their June swoon leaving them two games off the lead in the American League East.
But they say they couldn't be any more excited about where they'll open post-All-Star break play tonight, in New York for a three-game weekend series with the division-leading Yankees.
"Might as well go ahead and start dealing with the hard part and see what's going to happen," All-Star leftfielder Carl Crawford said. "I guess there's not a better place to start."
"I like it," manager Joe Maddon said. "It'll wake us up in a hurry."
Having won 10 of 12 going into the break, the Rays headed north after Thursday's Tropicana Field workout talking confidently, knowing they can sweep their way back to first place (or get swept to drop five out).
"This is a pretty big series right now to at least take two of three from the Yankees," said James Shields, who starts tonight. "If we don't, we just have to move on and try to win some games. Hopefully, we get off to a hot start."
The atmosphere will be even more charged than the Rays anticipated, with tributes tonight to mark the deaths of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and legendary public-address man Bob Sheppard in addition to Saturday's already planned old-timers' day events.
Maddon gave the team a heads-up about the "wild weekend" during a brief speech before the workout but spent more time reminding players of focusing on the little things (for example, not missing signs) and to seize the opportunity they have.
"The thing I talk about a lot is to respect the position that we're in," Maddon said. "We've worked very hard to get to this position. We are 20 games over .500, and we've got the playoffs staring us in the faces. Respect that.
"And I don't think people really take time to understand that sometimes. You work this hard to get there. And then you just take a cavalier approach into the second half, and all of a sudden, it goes away."
As well as the Rays have done in compiling a 54-34 record that is second best in the majors, they believe they can do better.
The starting pitching has overall been very good (and they're confident Wade Davis and Shields will be sharper) and the bullpen even better. The defense, for the most part, has been dazzling. The concern has been an offense marred by frustrating inconsistency.
And while executive vice president Andrew Friedman explores external options in advance of the July 31 deadline for nonwaiver trades, Maddon said the key to improvement rests with three players already in the clubhouse: shortstop Jason Bartlett, first baseman Carlos Peña and centerfielder B.J. Upton.
All three have, thus far, had poor offensive seasons by a number of measures with batting average among the most glaring: Bartlett hitting .231 (down from his .287 career mark), Peña .203 (.247) and Upton .230 (.266).
Maddon isn't asking for a lot more.
"Look at what they've done in the first half. And we know that there's more in all three of them, and they'll be the first ones to tell you that," Maddon said.
"Just an average increase or getting to more closely resemble their average numbers would be a tremendous boost in the second half; almost like an acquisition. It would be like three acquisitions if we got them going back to where they played at last year; B.J. going back to really before that. Any kind of ascension in their game really is going to make a huge difference for us in the second half."
Overall, Friedman said the key is for everyone to do well — the current 25 players and the five or so currently at Triple-A Durham he expects to contribute down the stretch — and no one have to do too much.
"We have a very talented group, and I think we also have a lot of depth," he said. "The biggest key is consistency. We don't need guys to play over their heads. If all 30 guys play to their ability level, I'm very confident we'll be playing very competitive games late into September and into October."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.