Tampa Bay Rays
Rays-Yankees: Never too early for a pennant race
ST. PETERSBURG - Two years ago, Tampa Bay area baseball fans learned what it was like to follow a team through a pennant race and into the World Series. Tonight may usher in a sequel to that roller coaster ride of euphoria and letdown, of late-night TV watching and next-morning rehashing. Of hanging on every pitch. It's only the second-to-last day of July, and the Rays could still fade out of the playoff picture well before October. But with 61 games to play and first-place within sight, a three-game series with the defending World Series champion New York Yankees at sold-out Tropicana Field will hardly feel like ordinary summer baseball. Rays left fielder Carl Crawford doesn't think it's too early for pennant-race intensity to kick in."After the All-Star break, every game is a big deal," Crawford said. "I'm pretty sure it's going to be real loud. It should be exciting for the fans, and hopefully we can win the series and keep everybody excited." The Rays (63-38), after a dreary June that revealed all of the team's flaws, carry as much momentum into tonight's 7:10 series opener as they've had all year. They are 18-6 in July, their most wins ever for the month, and have won six in a row. They're two games behind the Yankees - the only team in the majors with a better record - in the American League East. While finishing ahead of the Yankees isn't only way into the postseason - Tampa Bay has 5½-game lead over the Boston Red Sox in the AL wild-card standings - the Rays aren't about to concede the division to New York. "Oh, not at all," right fielder Ben Zobrist said. "We want to win the division. We've worked as hard as anybody, we feel like. Part of our job is to win the division, and then the World Series. That's our goal." Maddon, as always, vowed that his team won't give the Yankees games any more weight than next week's games against the Minnesota Twins and Toronto Blue Jays. And first baseman Carlos Pena, while welcoming the electric atmosphere the weekend should bring, insisted the Rays won't change their approach. "It's nice to have this momentum," he said. "We're excited about it. I feel we're prepared, we're poised. At the same time, we always talk about not having an on-and-off switch. It doesn't matter who we're playing. We don't try to turn it on because it's already on." As if the games themselves aren't important enough, the series carries two major subplots. There's Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez still stuck on career home run No. 599 and having the opportunity to reach the 600 milestone. Rays rookie right-hander Wade Davis, who'll start tonight, was merely being matter-of-fact when he said Tampa Bay's pitchers don't feel pressured. "It's more of a challenge for him than it is for us,' he said. "It's a lot easier to get somebody out than for somebody to hit a home run." There's also the nonwaiver trade deadline of 4 p.m. Saturday and the prospect of either the Rays or Yankees or both adding a key piece for the stretch run. While the Rays have indicated they won't make a move that in dilutes their defense, there's fresh speculation on ESPN that the club is in the mix for Washington Nationals slugger Adam Dunn, an average first baseman who has indicated he doesn't want to be a designated hitter. The Rays' greatest need may be a right-handed hitter who can spot start, but Dunn hits left-handed. There are some concerns for the Rays heading into the weekend. Center fielder B.J. Upton is coming off a mild ankle sprain, and Zobrist missed Thursday win over Detroit with low-back stiffness. And the Yankees have their rotation set up better. Davis (8-9) takes on Phil Hughes (12-3), Matt Garza (11-5) matches up with Javier Vazquez (9-7) on Saturday and James Shields (9-9) takes on ace CC Sabathia (13-4) on Sunday. "I know we're all going to be excited about playing the games," Maddon said. "It's going to be a nice weekend series at the end of July (and) the beginning of August. I think it'll be entertaining baseball."