ST. PETERSBURG - A few years ago when Jamey Wright was playing for a team that was hopelessly out of the playoff chase by early August, he found himself in the team's weight room before a game going through his daily routine. The TV that hung from the wall was tuned to ESPN, and the worldwide leader was airing a clip on Derek Jeter preparing for yet another postseason with the Yankees. A strength and conditioning coach who worked mostly with the minor-leaguers said, "Man, can you believe all those extra games Jeter plays, the grinding through all those extra games every year." Wright's response?
"Let me tell you something," he said. "That's no grind. What he's doing is having the time of his life, coming to the ballpark, winning and going to the playoffs. When you're 20 games under .500 in the middle of July, that's the grind." The Rays are pushing the Red Sox for the American League East lead. They have Baltimore and Texas and Cleveland and the Yankees and now Kansas City to think about when it comes to the wild card. They have two starting pitchers on the disabled list. Their inability to hit with runners in scoring position cost them a pair of games late last week. They still have to make two trips to the West Coast. And they are having the time of their lives. This is nothing new for the Rays who have been here the past few years, especially those who helped make the memorable September charge to the wild card in 2011. But to players like Wright and Kelly Johnson, this is what they signed up for when they signed on last offseason. "When I stepped in the clubhouse for spring training I knew this was a special group," Wright said. "I thought this could be a lot of fun, and so far it hasn't disappointed." Johnson was part of another disappointing year in Toronto last season when the Blue Jays finished fourth, 22 games out of first place. "It's nice to be on this side," Johnson said. "You get on the losing end of it and you get into August and September and you start thinking about the offseason and football and things you shouldn't be worrying about. But those are traps and it's hard not to fall into, and pretty soon the whole team is in that trap and it makes it worse." The Rays will conduct their fantasy football draft this month, but that will just be a diversion from the playoff chase, a chance to show their skills as a general manager, a chance to rip each other's draft picks. "I think if there is any team that is immune to pressure, it's us," Sam Fuld said. "It's the culture Joe (Maddon) creates. We're as loose as they come. That's how we clawed back into it two years ago. When it became a race, we didn't change." Yes, Fuld said, it would be great to have a 20-game lead in the division. But where would the fun be in that? Trying to beat the Giants today while watching the scoreboard to see if the Diamondbacks can beat the Red Sox, to see what the Orioles are doing, keeping a watchful eye on the Yankees, now that's August (and eventually September) baseball around here. "You see Boston is ahead 8-2 and we know this is a game we have to win," Wright said. "Not that we don't want to win all of them, but it gives you a little extra incentive." Playing for the Blue Jays or the White Sox or the Twins right now is not a lot of fun. To them, baseball feels more like a job than a game. Wright said he didn't want to take the four days off at the All-Star break because the team was playing so well and he was having so much fun. Jesse Crain, acquired last week from the White Sox, said he was glad to escape that environment to join the Rays. "It's tough to play when you're losing every night," Crain said. Wright was one of the first players to greet Crain when he joined the team on Wednesday. Wright offered his hand and said, "Welcome to the party, man." [email protected] (813) 259-7227 Twitter: @RMooneyTBO