There is no shortage of candidates, but there is no obvious, clear-cut choice. Here, in countdown form, are our top five:
5. 3B Evan Longoria
There are, and will be more, stretches when Longoria carries the team with his bat and his glove. His numbers are down a bit after a June swoon, but he's still on pace for a sturdy 24 homers and 115 RBIs.
4. RHP Jeff Niemann
There's a lot to be said for the stability and consistency he has brought to the rotation, evidenced by a team co-high 14 quality starts and 2.65 ERA. But it just seems like he should have more than seven wins to show for it.
3. LF Carl Crawford
The defense is better than ever. And he is co-leading the AL in runs, second in hitting with runners in scoring position and steals and leading the team (and on pace for career highs) in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
2. LHP David Price
It's a bottom line game, and Price's bottom line is pretty darn good: 12-4, 2.42 in 17 starts. He leads the AL in wins, is second in ERA and is the first under-25 pitcher to get to the break with 12 wins, a sub-2.50 ERA and 100 strikeouts since Roger Clemens in 1986.
1. RHP Rafael Soriano
Soriano has done less work than almost any other Ray, pitching just 322/3 innings over 33 games. But none have had more of an impact on their success. Simply put, Soriano, in an all-but perfect performance with 23 saves in 24 chances, is the one player who, thus far, has made the biggest difference.
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Top three pleasant surprises
1. C John Jaso
Just getting to the bigs was unexpected, so his emergence as a key piece of the lineup (and occasional leadoff hitter) has been stunning. Most impressive? A .393 on-base percentage and walks/strikeouts ratio of 32-18.
2. INF Sean Rodriguez
The Rays knew Rodriguez had potential to be an impact player. They just didn't know it would happen so soon and so impressively with his bat and glove.
3. RHP Joaquin Benoit
A low-risk gamble and patience that he'd regain pre-surgery form has paid off remarkably well. Benoit has been dazzling and dominant, leading AL relievers with 13.32 strikeouts per nine innings.
Honorable mention: INF Reid Brignac
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Top three, um, five disappointments
1. CF B.J. Upton
Once again, the expectation was thiswould be the year Upton put it all together. Instead he has been a mess at the plate (.230 average, .321 on-base percentage, 77 strikeouts) and in a mess over more criticism about lack of hustle.
2. C Dioner Navarro
Navarro claimed this would be the season he'd re-establish himself as a frontline player. Who knew he meant at Triple-A Durham? A .210 average, .291 on-base percentage and the emergence of John Jaso led to a demotion in late June.
3. SS Jason Bartlett
It was probably wrong to expect him to match 2009's career-best numbers. But something isn't right with a .224 average and a 100-point drop-off against left-handers.
4. 1B Carlos Pena
You'd think he'd be higher on the list with a .205 average and AL-high 91 strikeouts. But he still led the team with 18 homers and was second with 54 RBIs, on pace for 34 and 102.
5. DH Pat Burrell
.202 average with the Rays, .289 with the Giants. 'Nuff said.
DISHONORABLE MENTION: RHP James Shields, DH Hank Blalock
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0-no, again and again
It seemed stunning enough when the Rays were victims of Oakland lefty Dallas Braden's May 9 perfect game given it was just the previous July when they'd done nothing at the plate against the Chicago White Sox'sMark Buehrle, making them party to the 18th and 19th such occasions in baseball history.
But then the Rays took it further, getting no-hit again June 25 against Arizona, this time by former teammate Edwin Jackson in one of strangest no-nos ever as they had 10 men on base. (Don't forget on April 10 they were no-hit for 72/3by the Yankees' CC Sabathia.)
In addition to the embarrassment and frustration, it made for good copy as the Rays turned out to be the 10th team to be no-hit twice in a season and first to be no-hit three times (over nine-inning games) in less than a year.
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Putting spring training talk into action, the Rays roared off to one of baseball's best starts, peaking at 32-12 (and a since-blown six-game AL East lead) on May 23. They had the majors' best record for 63 days (23 more than in their first 12 years combined). A key was winning 21 of their first 27 road games (and 28 of 42 thus far). Their record, win percentage, place in the division and games ahead/behind through May 23 and since:
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- The Rays had just seven hits in a June 25-27 series against the D'backs (who had the majors' highest ERA), fewest for a three-game set since September 1965, when the Mets had seven against Milwaukee.
- RHP Matt Garza last week against Boston was the first pitcher since R.A. Dickey in 2003 to start a game and save a game in the same series.
- SS Jason Bartlett's three-run homer June 30 ended his streak of 21 consecutive solo blasts, second longest in MLB history.
- 1B Carlos Penahomered in six consecutive games, two shy of the major-league record.
- LF Carl Crawford and 3B Evan Longoria were elected All-Star starters, matching the total from the Rays' first 12 seasons.
- Crawford became the first player to have seven four-hit games before the break since Kansas City's Mike Sweeney in 2000.
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- Joe Maddon has had his arguments with umpires (including his creative protest of a balk on Matt Garza), but his most interesting controversy came when MLB officials tried to ban his hoodie sweatshirt. "Thankfully," he said, "covered heads prevailed."
- The Rays were literally in the wrong place at the wrong time June 19, when the Marlins staged one of baseball's worst promotions, giving away vuvuzela-style horns. "I would much prefer that they just went with KC and the Sunshine Band next time," Maddon said.
- Two Rays were on the wrong end of a sting ray this season, as INF Sean Rodriguez and OF Gabe Kapler were stung in the water behind their Redington Beach condo complex.
- The Rays are 2-11 in games finished on Fridays, 50-23 on other days.
- On April 16 in Boston, rain forced the first regular-season suspended game in franchise history. They wentthrough it in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series. And in a way, the endings were similar, Pat Burrell (for Philly then, for the Rays this time) getting the key hit.
- Several players and Maddon started to regularly wear old-school striped stirrup socks. Maddon has made it, in his own way, a tribute to Pants Rowland, who managed the 1917 White Sox, the only team to be no-hit twice in a season and get to the World Series.
Note: All stats entering Saturday's game