The Rays' fun story has turned serious

ST. PETERSBURG — What do you say, Big Papi, are you impressed yet?

Because it didn't sound like it before the Red Sox were swept Wednesday night. It didn't sound like it when you suggested the American League East race will once again come down to Boston and New York.

Oh, Boston slugger David Ortiz didn't blast the Rays as much as dismiss them. Sort of like the guy who lets his little brother take a few cuts until the big boys show up for the game.

"I'm not saying that they will drop, but if you go by the numbers, that's normally what happens in baseball," Ortiz told reporters in the Red Sox clubhouse before Wednesday's game. "It's always the guys with more experience and the guys used to being in the same spot at the end of the year that take over.

"It (would) be good to watch those kids come through and watch them in the playoffs. It would be good for baseball. It would be good for people to believe that it doesn't matter how much money you pay or how big your payroll is, (that) those teams still have a chance to be in the playoffs and make a difference. But at the same time, you know how it is. You guys know better."

And there you have it:

The doubt that hides behind the smiles.

Just as Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. suggested on a national teleconference the day before, there are plenty of baseball people out there who still believe the Rays will start to fade when the pressure increases.

Nothing wrong with that. Upstarts have been known to collapse. No reason for anyone to get their shorts in a bunch over the opinion of someone else. Particularly when they have some basis for their claim.

But as a dying Sean Connery asked Kevin Costner in The Untouchables:

"What are you prepared to do now?"

That is the question the Rays must answer. Today, tomorrow and every day until Sept. 28.

"He's right. History backs him up," closer Troy Percival said. "But it's not going to happen to us. If we don't win this thing, it's not going to be because we fall. They will have to come and take it from us. There's a difference.

"I will never downgrade Boston or New York because they've done it, they've been there, they've proven they know how to get it done. And that's what we have to do. We have to prove we can get it done."

Beginning now, the Rays are the hunted. Yes, they have been in first place several times before this season. And they have swept the Red Sox previously, not to mention the Angels and the Cubs.

But until this series — until Evan Longoria won a game Tuesday night with his glove and B.J. Upton won one Wednesday night with his — the Rays still had the feel of interlopers. Like a bunch of frat boys crashing a party.

That will no longer be the case. July has arrived, and the world is taking notice of Tampa Bay.

From here on, every series becomes big. Every blunder gets magnified. Every loss is a potential slide back to obscurity, and every critic has a joke waiting to be delivered.

In a way, this might be just what the Rays needed. Just when you were worrying they could be seduced by the magazine covers and the national telecasts, Big Papi has come along and tweaked their hardball insecurities.

He didn't call them a fluke. He didn't say they weren't talented. In some ways, he was very generous with his praise and mindful of their new status as baseball darlings.

Still, he made it clear he was not a believer.

Not a believer in a team that has beaten the Red Sox six consecutive games at Tropicana Field. Not a believer in a team that has a bigger lead on Boston than any opponent of the past two years. Not a believer in a team that has the best record in the majors while facing the most difficult schedule of the first half.

"I can see where he's coming from. It's just based on history; based on our lack of success in the past," Longoria said. "But I think we have too good of a combination of players in this locker room to really fall off."

At this point, if the Rays do not reach the playoffs, this season will be a disappointment. That would have been a ridiculous statement three months ago, but the Rays have now raised expectations to an unthinkable level.

If the Red Sox pass them, the Rays will have to admit they were not as good as they thought. If the Yankees or Tigers pass them, the Rays will have to admit they gagged a little when the season was on the line.

The last time Boston and Tampa Bay played, there were punches thrown and bodies bruised. This time, Ortiz questioned their viability, and that's got to hurt worse.

So, Rays, what are you prepared to do now?

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

The Rays' fun story has turned serious 07/02/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 11:46am]

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