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A ray of hope for Tampa Bay

No longer the Devil Rays, they're no longer the joke of baseball, as Maddon's team fights for first.

June 10, 2008|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

First, they got the "Devil" out of 'em. Now they're beating the devil out of just about everybody else.

The Tampa Bay (used to be Devil) Rays brought the third-best record in the American League to Anaheim Monday, and isn't that a switch.

"I'm not going to sit here and lie to you, for us to be doing what we're doing, it's kind of surprised us a little bit too," reliever Dan Wheeler said during a recent series at Boston's Fenway Park. "But we believed there was something in there that we could go out and compete on any given day and put ourselves in a position to win."

Tampa Bay has long provided a respite for other teams in the rugged American League East. Only once in its 10 years did it finish out of the cellar. But this season, the Rays have already spent more days in first place than in all their past combined.

"You don't want to look up there and see your name at the bottom," Manager Joe Maddon said, gesturing to the standings listed at the base of the Green Monster. "We're not at the bottom and we like that."

And, after years of failure, the Rays are winning with youth, pitching and solid defense.

Those things and a few discarded Southland parts.

Remember Maddon?

He was a longtime Angels bench coach and a onetime interim manager of the team. In his third year at Tampa Bay's helm, Maddon, with his thick-rimmed glasses, is an early leader for league manager of the year.

Edwin Jackson?

The former can't-miss Dodgers prospect who missed is firmly planted in the middle of a young but efficient starting rotation. Jackson took a record of 3-5 with a respectable 3.95 earned-run average into Monday's game.

How about Dioner Navarro?

The former Dodgers catcher, nudged out of L.A. by Russell Martin, was batting . 333 heading into the Angels series.

Toss in such veterans as Cliff Floyd and Troy Percival, the former Angels closer, plus a strong mix of up-and-comers headlined by B.J. Upton, Scott Kazmir and Long Beach State product Evan Longoria, and you have a Rays team on the rise.

And Tampa Bay is winning at a cost considerably less than that of its division brethren. While the New York Yankees ended last season with a $218.3-million payroll and the Red Sox's was $155.4 million, the Rays are cruising along at $31.8 million, third-lowest in the majors.

Maddon says the turnaround started in the off-season when the team met to reveal its sleek new uniforms that did away with the "Devil Rays," in hopes of casting the organization into a new future.

"It was kind of a nice gathering, guys were able to communicate face to face," Maddon said. "I really thought that was a big moment. It went well beyond just getting a new uniform."

Then it was on to spring training, where the Rays spent time and energy in winning meaningless games.

"When you've lost a lot, the one thing you want to get away from is losing," Floyd said of the team's spring training and its 18-8 record. "I don't care where it's at -- exhibition, college game, February, whenever it is.

"You want to get away from the 'L' column because it's been pretty predominant here for a long time. So, for me, we talked about this and Joe put his handprint on it, it was, 'We're going to win ballgames in spring.' "

But still, it's the Rays.

It's the franchise that has meandered through its existence to date, squandering draft pick after draft pick, ridding itself of Josh Hamilton only to see him flourish with another team, and seemingly destined to move from Florida.

"When you look at the history of this team, there's no way anyone thought [they'd be in first]. They're too young, they aren't going to do it," said a mocking Wheeler.

Now, a new stadium is being planned and baseball, even in June, has its perks.

Other managers and coaches have approached Maddon, congratulating him on his disciplined team and how he has brought National League-style ball to the AL East.

Still, it's all kept in perspective.

"We have a long way to go," Maddon said. "There's no complacency here by any means. Guys haven't earned the right to even use that word."

--

jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

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