This season, Tampa Bay Rays playing role of rabbit

ST. PETERSBURG — Fifteen out of 20. And furthermore, zoom.

Fifteen out of 20, and notice has been served. Catch them if you can.

Fifteen out of 20, and the Rays have left the gate as if Secretariat had drunk out of Ben Johnson's water bottle.

The blazing, amazing start of the Tampa Bay Rays continued Tuesday night with —what else? — another victory. By now, their quick start has left skid marks all over the American League, and still, the fun keeps coming. This time, the road was a little bumpier and the ride was a little rougher, but in the end, the Rays won.

Again.

This, one assumes, was what Rays manager Joe Maddon meant when he said he wanted to get off to a quick start. Fifteen victories in 20 games, and the Rays have grabbed the 2010 season by the throat. If their start was any quicker, they might be called for offsides.

Fifteen out of 20, and this is beginning to look routine.

Want to know the best part of winning? Why, it's all those wins, silly. In baseball, a win is like earning a gold brick. The more you win, the bigger wall you can build. By the end of the year, a team hopes it can build a big enough wall to push it over onto the New York Yankees.

Yeah, winning is its own currency. It forgives errors, and it heals injuries, and it makes you forget that this time last year, the Rays were playing the role of the Boston Red Sox. They won only nine of their 20, and by the time they showed up for the season, it had gone on without them. After last April, the Rays looked like a man trying to run down a bus that had left without him.

This year, Maddon wanted to make sure his team knew that, mathematically speaking, a victory in April counts just as much as one in September. He wanted more urgency. He wanted more focus. Pretty much, he wanted a head start.

He got that, and he got more. Here's a secret to baseball. Winning isn't just about the standings. It's about the benefits that come along with it.

Win, and a team's confidence grows.

Win, and leadership develops.

Win, and the Red Sox get smaller in the rearview mirror.

These Rays are suddenly a comfortable, confident bunch. They can pitch, they can catch, and there is something about men on base that turns the batting order into Murderer's Row.

Then there is this: The scoreboard never seems to affect them. When they blew a four-run lead Tuesday night because the starting pitching wasn't spectacular for once, when it seemed as if they were about to blow another one, things never changed. And in the end, the fans cheered so loud you might have thought the crowd of 10,825 was actually, oh, 10,925.

"I think there is more of a understanding that every game counts," Maddon said. "It doesn't matter the date or time of the year. I think they've gone back to the concept of 9=8, that every game matters. I really believe we're motivated by not liking what happened last year, of not liking watching other people go to the playoffs."

You can blame 100 things for last year's disappointment. One of them might be a leadership void. After losing Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske and Trever Miller, maybe the Rays weren't mature enough to maneuver around the trouble spots.

This year, it appears they are. Maddon said last week the team's leaders were beginning to show up. Asked to identify them on Tuesday, Maddon started with one word: Longo.

Yeah, in many ways, this is becoming Evan Longoria's team, and his clubhouse. He's still young, but already, his word has a lot of cachet around here. Add it to Carl Crawford, who Maddon says is doing a much better job as a leader, and Carlos Peña. Throw in long-time leader James Shields and reliever Dan Wheeler.

Suddenly, this team looks mature enough to handle itself, and its success. It is mature enough to know that good start doesn't guarantee a good finish. It is mature enough to know that if you slow down, someone else in this division won't.

That said, a good start beats a bad one. The Rays should know all about that. Over their previous 10 seasons, they hadn't won as many as half of their first 20 games. This year, they've won three-quarters of them. That's on pace for 121 victories for the season.

Fifteen of 20.

Just wondering, but how did they blow those five losses?

This season, Tampa Bay Rays playing role of rabbit 04/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 28, 2010 12:31am]

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