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With rivals in town Rays fans savor new status

First pitch strike, second pitch strike, and out came the clanking of the cowbells. Rays pitcher Wade Davis stared in at Red Sox leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury. Mark the moment.

The mood heading into Monday night's first game of this week's three-game series against the Sox felt like something new. The Sox: the fourth-best team in the American League East, just okay. The Rays: the best team in all of the major leagues, by far.

Folks lined up in the heat of the lunch hour to buy tickets at the box office at Tropicana Field.

Hanging in the heavy air was a hint that the tables have turned.

"It puts a whole different spin on things," said Sean Porterfield, 20, a University of Central Florida student who's home in St. Petersburg for the summer. "Usually the Red Sox come in like they're the boss. Now it's different."

Sharon Poore, 54, of St. Petersburg, described herself as an "avid, avid, drive-everybody-crazy Rays fan," and said there was "magic" with this team. But her main message was written in bold on the front of her shirt: BEAT BOSTON.

"We've won so much this year," said Garry Faulk, 51, of St. Petersburg, "it feels like we're always going to win."

It's unbecoming to gloat, especially after a loss, so forgive this transgression: The Rays aren't just good. They're not just really good. They're on track to be historically good.

It's not even June, but still: Heading into Monday night, they'd scored 102 more runs than they'd given up, one of only four teams in the majors in the last 70 years to do that over 44 games. Only seven teams since 1961 have started a season so well.

The Rays are young, strong, versatile and fast.

"They're '98 Yankees good," one scout told Yahoo! Sports the other day.

Those Yankees, including the playoffs and the World Series, which they won, won 125 games. That's the most ever. In the whole history of the game.

Heady stuff. Especially around here.

The way it once was: All the Sox fans and their red-B apparel and their Matt Damon accents piled into Southwest jets from Boston's Logan Airport and came down here to use the Trop as a low-cost alternative to their own high-priced home field up in Boston. Fun in the sun. It was like a vacation. No more.

The way it is now: "I have never been here when the Rays were ahead of the Red Sox," said Bill Moore, 44, down for the games from Somerset, Mass., and he has been making the trip to the Trop for years.

This started changing a couple seasons back. The Rays did, after all, make it to the World Series, and beat the Sox to do it. But the '08 breakthrough felt like: We're sticking with them, we're sticking with them, we're sticking … There was surprise. It was giddy and wide-eyed.

This year's onslaught so far feels like something else: They can't stick with us. Clear-eyed.

The old refrain: Sure is tough that the Rays are in the same division with the Red Sox and the Yankees.

The new refrain: Sure is tough that the Red Sox and the Yankees are in the same division as the Rays.

"It's a little uncomfortable," said Linda Barnstein, 63, a Sox fan from Malden, Mass., before the game outside the Trop.

Bet it is.

Maybe it was the four-game sweep last month up in Boston, or maybe it was the two-game sweep last week up in New York, or maybe it was the latest stretch of 10 wins in 12 games, but something changed somewhere along the way since opening day.

Excitement turned to expectation.

It begat big talk from the tailgaters as game time got closer.

"They're just so much better than the rest of the league," said Tom Jendrysik, 64, of Longboat Key.

"We're stacked pretty good," said Nathan Smith, 24, of Bradenton.

Said Kyle Wetzel, 23, of Tampa: "Heck yes we expect to win."

Can't win them all — and this one was never really close. But the night ended as it had begun: The Rays were still the best team in baseball and the Red Sox were not.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

With rivals in town Rays fans savor new status 05/24/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 7:43am]
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