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Rays role reversal: Tampa Bay’s 13-4 start flips script on last year’s 4-13 stumble to open season

They know the importance of a fast start. Last year’s start sunk them in the division. This year’s has them leading the division by a large margin.

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays entered Wednesday with a majors-best 13-4 record.

Last season, they opened 4-13.

The fact that the Rays’ torrid start to 2019 is the exact opposite of last year isn’t lost inside their clubhouse. They know they’re coming out of the gate quickly, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they appreciate the irony.

“Until you said that, I didn’t even think about that,” manager Kevin Cash said. “The only thing I thought about is when we were 2-1, I was like, ‘All right, we can’t go 1-8.’ So that’s the last time I started comparing last year to this year.”

Cash is referring to the Rays losing eight of their first nine last season, all of those games coming against the Red Sox and Yankees.

Last season the Rays found themselves 10½ out of first place in the AL East through the first 17 games of the season, in part because of Boston’s torrid 17-2 start.

This year’s team has scored 24 more runs through 17 games, allowed 50 fewer runs and flipped its run differential from minus-34 to plus-40, a difference of 74 runs.

“Right now, the confidence that’s buzzing around this clubhouse and in the dugout during the games, we feel really good about ourselves,” centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “There’s times where I’ve been a part of eight-, 10-game losing streaks and you get down 2-0 in the first inning and you’re deflated right then and there. You’re like, ‘Okay, another day.’

“But right now, we went down 2-0 (in Tuesday’s 4-2 win against Baltimore) and it was like, ‘We’re gonna score. We’re going to win this game.’ We truly felt that. It’s just little things that set the bar.

“We knew coming into the season that we could be really good if we went out and executed the way we’re capable of, and we have so far, and that’s why our record is what it is.”

The reward is a 5½-game lead, entering Wednesday as the only team in the AL East with a winning record while the division heavyweights struggle.

The defending champion Red Sox’s starting pitching has been horrid, and the Yankees, a 100-win wild-card team last season, are a walking infirmary full of injuries.

“This is a challenging division, and you know some of the teams that have started off slow, they’re going to get really hot, and they’re going to be really good,” Cash said. “It may not be clicking quite yet for them, but it will be soon enough. So we’ve got to do everything we can to keep playing really, really high-quality baseball at a high level to continue to win games.”

The Rays have their first games against Boston this weekend, starting a stretch of six of nine against the Red Sox. And they will have a stretch of six of eight against the Yankees in mid-May.

Still, the Rays are on the verge of first of their largest division lead in nearly nine years, when they owned a six-game lead on May 23, 2010.

Kiermaier said he admits to checking the standings, adding it’s important for the team to play with the confidence a hot start builds. But also realizes it’s only the third week of April.

“We know what’s going on around the league and what’s going on in the race,” Kiermaier said. “But it’s so early right now that it’s like, don’t get distracted or even feel too good about yourselves because for as confident we are right now, we can’t get too high because this game will humble you real quick. It’s just about finding that balance.”