Tuesday, July 8

Rays, Poked With Sticks Before and During Season, Respond

The success of the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays can be attributed to many factors. There is the bevy of young talent with including Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, Scott Kazmir and more. The dazzling Rays pitching led by Andy Sonnanstine, Matt Garza, and Jamie Shields has them in the upper tier in virtually every pitching category.

Whatever reason you point to the Rays are atop the American League East, 4 games ahead of Boston and 6 ahead in the loss column. Although we have yet to pass the All-Star break, it appears that this team is for real. With the best record in the majors, it will be a far fall if they fail to clinch a playoff spot in October. A far fall but far from unthinkable. The Red Sox and Yankees are pursuing them and will not go quietly. The Rays were looked at in spring as a feel-good story to come in 2008. The analysts thought they would be much improved, but not up to par with New York and Boston. It appears that the teams agreed with the analysts. In separate incidents, both the Yankees and the Sox thought they could bully the Rays around, and it led to the galvanizing of a team, a shared purpose, and a hardened psyche.

The first incident occurred in Spring Training. On March 8 this year, Elliot Johnson, who is currently 7-19 with 7 strikeouts, ran headlong into Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli on his way to scoring in a 4-1 Rays win. Cervelli broke his right wrist and Girardi, a former catcher himself, stated his irritation that another team would play hard in spring.

"I think it's uncalled for," Girardi said. "Spring training, you're going to get people hurt, and that's what we got, we got Cervelli hurt. It's one thing to get hit by a pitch, it gets away, but, I don't understand it."

Johnson said he was merely trying to do his job and even offered his concern on Cervelli’s well being. But this was not good enough for Girardi and company. Four days later, Shelly Duncan who is currently batting .175, slid into second base with spikes up into the leg of Akinori Iwamuri. It did not take Jonny Gomes long to respond; Gomes came rushing at full speed into the infield and both benches were cleared afterwards.

Joe Maddon, who had refused comment after the Johnson play at home, angrily stated his contempt for what happened, "In Tampa, that play you saw at home plate was a good, hard baseball play. What you saw today was the definition of a dirty play, there's no room for that in our game. It's contemptible. It's wrong. It's borderline criminal, and I could not believe they did that."

He added later, "When we go out and play the Yankees the next time, we're going to play it hard and play it right. Period. That's how we come to the ballpark every day."

The brawl ignited the fire for the young Rays and set the tone for the season. They took on the attitude of questioning why they should simply lay down and let the Red Sox and Yankees run away with the division. If they played the right way, and gave the effort they could shut them up.

The Red Sox would stir the pot next. On June 5th, Coco Crisp charged the mound after he was plunked by Jamie Shields. A wild melee ensued and again Jonny Gomes was at the forefront, rushing to aid his pitcher. It would be Shields, however with the most pointed words of the day, saying “"I protected my own players and that's what we need to do around here. We've been getting stomped around the last 10 years and it isn't going to happen anymore. I had to let them know early and let them know right away."

Even though the Red Sox swept the series, the tone was set, the Rays were mad as hell, and they were not going to take it anymore. The Rays kept winning after the series, going 14-7 until the Sox came back to town on June 30th. This time the Rays did the sweeping in front of a full crowd at the Trop. It was the middle of their 7 game win streak in which they overtook first in the AL East that was snapped last night versus the Royals.

The biggest moment to be taken from the Rays win streak was the final game at the Trop against Boston. After Dan Wheeler recorded the save he and catcher Dioner Navarro celebrated the come-from-behind win over the division rivals, there was a different enthusiasm in the teams hand slaps. What had before been youthful exuberance was now forming into belief.

The Rays open a quick two game stint with the Yankees tonight followed by four games at the Jake in Cleveland that lead into the All-Star break. With a 24-15 record against the division, the Yanks and Sox have taken notice, or at least they better because the Rays have the confidence, the purpose, and more importantly the talent to win the division.

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