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The Rays in the playoffs? Five factors to consider

ST. PETERSBURG — What started as a spring fling has turned into summer fun. Now the Rays are aiming for a classic fall, as well as the Fall Classic.

Sunday's win was their 55th of the season, which is not only the most in the major leagues but also matches their total from the 2002 season.

The most games the team has ever won in its 10 seasons is 70. It could have that many by the end of July, and clearly now has bigger goals.

Typically, it takes around 90 wins to make the playoffs. If the Rays split their remaining 75 games, they would finish with 93. If they maintain their current pace, they would win 102.

And they really wouldn't have to do much different.

"I don't think anything has to happen; we just have to keep playing the way we're playing," said veteran reliever Troy Percival, who was a member of the Angels' 2002 championship team.

Their sudden rise — in the first season since they changed their colors and uniforms and shortened their name — has been treated as one of the biggest surprises of the baseball season, and something of a novelty, with a burst of national media attention.

Sunday, they got some respect, as two of their players, pitcher Scott Kazmir and catcher Dioner Navarro, were named to the American League team for the July 15 All-Star Game in New York. A third, rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, could join them if he wins an online vote of fans through

But their success has been mostly a group effort, the result of improved, and inspired, team play and increased confidence.

As they go forward, here are five factors that could affect whether they get to the playoffs for the first time:

1. Feelin' the heat

Because the Rays are relatively young and inexperienced, outsiders — and key players on the Red Sox — suggest they won't be able to handle the pressure of a pennant race and will fold down the stretch. But one of the reasons the Rays added Percival and Cliff Floyd was because they had been there and done that, and they expect their influence to guide the others.

"We're not thinking about experience. We're just thinking about lining up and winning the game, and if we keep that mentality we'll be fine," Carl Crawford said. "We know there are people who don't think we can do it."

2. Throw it and catch it

Most of the Rays' success has been the result of their improved pitching and defense.

Their starters have pitched better, and pitched deeper into games. And their bullpen, which was historically bad last season, has been one of the game's best this year, allowing an average of nearly three fewer runs per nine innings.

Even more improved has been their defense, limiting errors and allowing fewer runs. That is key because unlike pitching and hitting, defense is not prone to slumps.

3. Getting the offense going

They've gotten this far without getting that much from some of their key players. And given the way baseball tends to even out as a game of numbers, they have some basis in figuring there will be more to come.

First baseman Carlos Pena, for example, was their most valuable player last season and is one player who has not done nearly as well as in the past. Others are leftfielder Crawford, centerfielder B.J. Upton, designated hitter Floyd and reserve outfielder Jonny Gomes.

"Status quo in a lot of areas," manager Joe Maddon said, "and let's just push on the offense a little bit harder."

4. Comings and goings

The Rays have withstood a slew of injuries, playing at times without two of their top starters, Kazmir and Matt Garza; their top two relievers, Percival and Al Reyes; their shortstop, Jason Bartlett; Pena and Navarro.

But the loss of a key player for an extended period can quickly limit a team's chance for success. Conversely, a team can help itself down the stretch by adding players.

The Rays made the equivalent of a major acquisition by promoting Longoria, who started the season in the minors.

They can also make a deal, potentially trading young prospects for established major-leaguers.

5. More blue, fewer blue seats

They're professionals, so things such as atmosphere and crowd noise aren't supposed to matter.

But they do. Tropicana Field has suddenly become the cool place to be, with attendance up more than 35 percent over last season, and the Rays dig it. With crowds of 25,000 or more at the Trop, the Rays are 15-2. With 30,000 or more, they are 13-1.

"When this place is filled up, our players will continue to feed off that and it's going to result in more victories," Maddon said. "There's no question in our mind it makes a difference."

The Rays in the playoffs? Five factors to consider 07/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 9, 2008 9:58pm]
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