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Surging Rays eager to start 2nd half vs. Yankees

| Friday, July 16, 2010

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Carl Crawford can't think of a better way for the surging Tampa Bay Rays to resume the season than a trip to what is sure to be an emotionally-charged Yankee Stadium.

The All-Star left fielder has batted .429 over his past 20 games, helping the Rays steady themselves after a poor June. Tampa Bay has won 10 of 12 and reached the All-Star break with the second-best record in baseball (54-34) — two games behind first-place New York.

"I guess there's not a better place to start to see how things are going to be," Crawford said, looking ahead to a three-game series that begins tonight.

The opener will be New York's first game since the death this week of long-time Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

"From our perspective, we respect the Yankees, Mr. Steinbrenner and his legacy, obviously. But I'm sure it's going to be a lot more emotional for them. It's going to be a wild weekend," manager Joe Maddon said Thursday during a workout at Tropicana Field.

"Also the old-timers game on Saturday is going to be quite an event, too. I really believe we're able to handle that moment. We've got to go up there as business as usual and I think Mr. Steinbrenner would respect that."

Tampa Bay has rebounded from going 11-14 in June to win nine of its first 11 in July to climb back to a season-best 20 games over .500 — the club's best-ever record at the All-Star break.

The Rays were a baseball-best 32-12 through May 23, when it held a six-game lead over the Yankees and 8 1/2-game advantage over Boston in the AL East. They fell behind both division rivals during a dismal stretch in which they were no-hit for the second time this season and dropped nine games in the standings.

After going 6-1 on a homestand leading into the break, including a three-game sweep of the Red Sox, the Rays feel they've righted themselves and are bracing for what they expect to be a three-team race to the finish.

"They're not going away ... and we're not going away," Maddon said. "It's going to be fun all summer."

The formula for success has been much the same as two years ago, when Tampa Bay made an improbable run to World Series — timely hitting, strong starting pitching, a better than expected bullpen and solid defense.

Inconsistent hitting undermined the team in June, with the low point coming during a three-game series in which the Rays managed just seven hits off an Arizona pitching staff that ranked among the worst in the majors.

In addition to losing two of the three games, they were no-hit by former Ray Edwin Jackson to become the first team in major league history to be no-hit three times within a span of 12 months.

Maddon said he was never concerned because even though the offense was struggling, the Rays continued to pitch well, play good defense and avoid being swept in any series.

"You're always going to have those moments not being so good, but if you can avoid long losing streaks, you have a better chance of turning it around," the manager said. "We just kept our heads above water the whole time, kept coming up for air."

The timely hitting that was such a big part of the team's torrid start returned during a road trip in which Tampa Bay won four of six at Boston and Minnesota, then continued when the Rays returned home to take six of seven from the Red Sox and Cleveland Indians.

Crawford and Evan Longoria headed to the All-Star game batting .321 and .300, respectively. Left-hander David Price has a league-leading 12 victories and is second with a 2.42 ERA, while the team's other All-Star — closer Rafael Soriano -- is 2-0 with 1.60 ERA with 23 saves in 24 opportunities.

The team even brushed aside a dugout confrontation between Longoria and center fielder B.J. Upton, who exchanged words after Upton ran less than full speed to chase down a ball hit into the gap of a tie game.

"There are times a situation is boiling and you've got to get it out. I think that's healthy. That's not a negative. When it comes out, I think everybody's better for it," Maddon said.

The manager also finds it comforting that the Rays have the second-best record in baseball without getting expected offensive production from players such as Upton (.230), Jason Bartlett (.231) and Carlos Pena, who has a team-high 18 homers but is batting just .203.

Meanwhile, owner Stuart Sternberg bolstered hopes for a strong second-half when he said this month that the budget-minded team — already stretched thin by a $72 million payroll — would not shy from spending money to improve the roster to help the team's chances of earning a playoff berth.

Maddon held a team meeting in right field before yesterday's workout. His message was short and to the point.

"We're 20 games over .500, and the playoffs are staring us in the face. Respect that," he said. "Respect every day. Understand what's going on. We've worked real hard to get to this position."

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