This time, Rays insist, it's for real

Its best 40-game stretch under Joe Maddon has the club convinced it has turned a corner.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 10, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - They've teased like this before, playing well and winning often in spurts only to slip back to being the same old Devil Rays.

But after winning again Sunday with a 3-2 decision over Toronto, getting another, ho-hum, strong start from James Shields and another, yawn, clutch home run from Carlos Pena, the Rays insist that now they really mean it.

"Right now, it looks like it's the start of something," veteran Carl Crawford said. "I know in the past we've been known to do this, but this feels like it's a little different situation.

"Our guys are guys you know are going to be here next year that are capable of doing the exact same thing they did this year, and since you know that, it looks better than years before."

Though a major-league-worst 60-83 overall, the Rays are 22-18 since July 29, their best 40-game stretch in manager Joe Maddon's two seasons, and have won four straight series for the first time in more than three years.

And as they left Sunday for a 10-game, coast-to-coast road trip against the baseball-best Red Sox, wild-card chasing Mariners and AL West-leading Angels, they insist they are not far from leaping into contention themselves.

"I'd like to believe we're starting to see what it's supposed to look like in the near future," Maddon said. "And I'm pretty confident about that. Of course we have things to do, and the complacency factor built on a good month or two, I really want to avoid that, but I like what I'm seeing. And it's getting better."

The difference, Maddon said, is simply that they are playing better, and doing so in all facets of the game, eliminating mental and physical mistakes as they get more experienced, and building confidence as they go.

"We've been playing more of a complete game, more of a real baseball game, solid from start to finish," Maddon said.

Sunday was exactly that.

Down 2-1 in the sixth, they struck quickly against Toronto's Jesse Litsch, the Pinellas Park product and former Rays bat boy. Crawford mashed a 2-and-1 pitch off the C-ring catwalk above centerfield to tie, and six pitches later Pena put them ahead with his team record-extending 38th homer.

Shields gave the Rays seven more solid innings, finishing by working out of his one real spot of trouble with the tying run on third, striking out Troy Glaus and getting Aaron Hill on a weak grounder. The reward was his 12th win, matching Victor Zambrano for second most in franchise history, with at least three starts left to match Rolando Arrojo's 1998 club record of 14.

"If you want to use the word, it's kind of a typical performance," Maddon said.

And Dan Wheeler and Al Reyes took it from there, getting the final six outs in order.

"We've been saying this from Day 1: As soon as we start clicking, it's game on," Shields said. "It's game on. ... I think we're going to be able to compete. We know it. I think teams are starting to figure it out. All it took was for us to have some good chemistry and click out there. Once we click, this is what we're all about."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays.