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Wednesday, Sep 20, 2017
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Rays can't mess with success

ST. PETERSBURG - "Keep pushing, keep pushing." Manager Joe Maddon finds himself yelling that in the Rays dugout, the memory of last season's ugly start still fresh in his mind. He also finds his team is way ahead of him. "We've got something special going and we don't want to mess it up," Carl Crawford said. Make it 12 out of 14 for the best team in baseball right now. Make it 10 games over .500. The Rays didn't hit 10 over .500 last season until July 19. The year they won the pennant they didn't hit 10 over until May 25.
Tuesday, they tried to mess with their something special and couldn't do it, instead winning 8-6. Wade Davis coughed up a 4-0 lead over the Oakland A's, mostly on one fat mistake for a three-run homer. But when the A's pushed, the Rays pushed back on Pat Burrell's usual ahead-to-stay homer. It's only 20 games old, but this might be that kind of season, the kind where you can be on like your 14th catcher by late April, but someone named John Jaso finds his star, the kind where Pat the Bat is winning games right and left, the kind where everybody chips in, the kind where your TV color guy helps subdue a madman aboard a jetliner. Yes, the Rays are clicking right now. And they're in a perfect mood. Five hours before Tuesday's game, Rays relievers Dan Wheeler and Andy Sonnanstine and one of the clubhouse guys stood at home plate in an empty Trop, waggled irons and hit golf balls at a batting tee in center field in a friendly competition. They all got close, but Wheeler hit one within five feet. Fun over, they put on the rest of their baseball uniforms and with their teammates went to work, through a series of fundamental drills before batting practice, Maddon's way of keeping everyone sharp. They're loose, but they're focused. They've been sharp all month. Rays catcher Dioner Navarro smiled. "The goal is to win as many games as we can as fast as we can, leave nothing to chance." They left everything to chance last season, digging a hole they never truly escaped. The starting pitching has been big this season, though Davis lasted just five innings Tuesday and gave up four quick ones in the third. The hitting is coming from most everywhere, and in a timely fashion. Burrell responded near instantly to a 4-4 game with a two-out, three-run shot to left. Don't look now, but the Bat is on pace for 90-plus RBIs. So are a number of Rays. No. 9 hitter Reid Brignac hit his second home run of the season. Jason Bartlett drove in two runs and had three hits. There are many ways to win a game this season, and so far many Rays to win a game, too. That includes a growing Rays cult hero, backup backup catcher Jaso, who drove in another run with a second-inning double, one of his three hits. He's batting .500. Get thee to a Bobble-head Night! Jaso's contributions in a pinch remind us of 2008, a sum-of-the-parts type sensation. Jaso is here because Kelly Shoppach is on the shelf with an injury. And Navarro began serving a two-game suspension Tuesday for bumping an umpire. He wasn't even allowed to stay at the Trop for the game. Great, just what the joint needed: another empty seat. But a crowd 10,825 made the noise of 12,219 when it was over. Davis settled down, the hits came when they had to come, the soft underbelly bullpen stiffened just enough and closer Rafael Soriano pitched a perfect ninth for his fifth save in fifth tries. When it was over, Maddon gladly spoke of Wheeler and Sonnanstine's golf game. "It love it. It's great," Maddon said. "You have your fun, then you go and do your job." Job 1? Keep pushing.
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