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The Rays' loss stings, but the moment is sweet

BOSTON

Ah, yes. This is the way baseball is supposed to feel.

It is a perfect night in the cathedral called Fenway Park, and first place hangs in the air. The colors of the night seem a little bit sharper, the buzz from the crowd seems a little louder, and every pitch seems a little more important than the one that came before it.

Such is the fabric of a game that matters. It is as if someone has tinkered with the control knobs and all the available electricity in a city has been turned up.

For a team such as Tampa Bay, it is the sort of game that has been only, oh, 11 years or so in the making.

The Rays played the biggest game in the history of their franchise Tuesday night in the toughest place you can imagine. They lost 7-4, but before you allow yourself to be disappointed, ponder the sweetness of the moment. It is June, and the Rays played in a big game. Tonight, they will play in one that is bigger still.

Done? Okay, now you can be disappointed.

This is the way defeat is supposed to feel.

Losing is supposed to sting like a fresh cut across your chest. Perhaps that, too, is a rite of passage. In all those forgettable, lost seasons, the Rays lost so often that everyone became numbed by it.

But even in this place, even against this opponent, the Rays know Tuesday's game was winnable, and they seemed a little annoyed that they did not pull it off.

Good for them. If the Rays have earned nothing else, it is the right to be taken seriously. And even for a feel-good team that is having a coming-of-age season, losing a big game is supposed to sting for a while.

Eventually, if the Rays are going to grow into a contender, this is the kind of game they will have to win. On the road. Against a world champion. Without all their pieces. Yes, they are going to have to win at Fenway. Yes, they are going to have to win against the Red Sox.

When it comes to baseball, the Red Sox are pretty much the biggest bully on the block. For the Rays in particular, the Red Sox have become the monsters in the closet. Boston has won 42 of their past 51 meetings at Fenway. Around here, the improvement of the Rays is strictly a word-of-mouth affair; no one has seen it close up.

In other words, the Red Sox aren't going anywhere, and if the Rays are, they're going to have to deal with them. That isn't easy. The Red Sox have a lineup of old leather and barbed wire, and they have earned their reputation in big games.

They seem to make every big pitch, to get every big hit. Here in Fenway, comforted by the Green Monster and John Hancock's autograph, they are tougher to beat than the Cartwrights were on the Ponderosa.

"To win in this league," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "you have to win in this ballpark. They're difficult, they're very difficult, but we have to get it done here. At some point, we've just got to make that leap."

Perhaps that is why Maddon considers this road trip like a big exam for his team. He knows a lot of people are waiting to check the standings after the Rays play two more games here, three in Texas and three in Anaheim.

"I'm really looking forward to this trip," Maddon said before the game. "It's a really important time for us to see what we've got going on, how good we actually are, and if there are any exposed weaknesses at this point. I like the idea of this happening right now. It's a good test of what we've got going on."

Oh, the Rays have some work to do. For instance, the cleanup hitters don't clean up nearly enough. There are still too many strikeouts. And in Fenway, the starting pitching has shown its youth.

On other hand, the Rays have built some confidence of their own. Just ask Cliff Floyd, who stood at his locker Tuesday afternoon and talked about big games. Yes, he said, this team is capable of playing them in August and September, too.

"We're good enough," he said. "We believe.

"To me, that's a big word. It means we hold ourselves accountable to win ballgames, and when we don't, we get ticked off."

For the Rays, perhaps that is the true measure of the moment. Before they can be expected to win big games, they have to play in a few first.

Tonight's game is bigger.

As a team grows, the games always do.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.

The Rays' loss stings, but the moment is sweet 06/03/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2008 3:06pm]
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