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Veteran Cliff Floyd has helped lift Tampa Bay to contender status


It’s mid-August, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, er, just plain ‘Rays’ now, are in first place in the American League East Division.

That is not a typo. I did not mean to say that first place belongs to the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, or the perennial pennant-winning New York Yankees.

No, first place in the AL East belongs to the upstarts from Florida, and real baseball fans know the significance in that development.

The ‘Rays’ as they are now formally known (they dropped the ‘Devil’ from the front of the nickname this past off-season) are now bringing sunshine to Tropicana Field for the first time in their history.

The franchise was founded in 1998 as part of another expansion by Major League Baseball, and has finished in last place in all but one season ever since, that being in 2004 when they finished in fourth place.

They are one of just four current teams to have never played in a World Series (the others being the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, and new Washington Nationals.)

In fact, before this season the team had never won more than 70 games in a season. But this past weekend the Rays won their 71st game, breaking their franchise record, and have generally held first place in the power-packed AL East for most of the past couple of months.

Fluke? Feel-good story that will likely fade? Far from it.

Anyone who follows baseball as closely as I do has seen this coming, it was just a matter of ‘when’ it would happen, not ‘if’ it would happen at all.

For a half dozen years now, the Rays on-field futility has resulted in high draft positions, and the team management has made astute choices which have led to a minor league system teaming with talent.

Players such as young outfielders Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and B.J. Upton, third baseman Evan Longoria, and pitcher James Shields have come through those drafts, and will soon be joined by last season’s top pick, pitcher David Price.

The club made an astute trade during 2004 in which they stole young starting pitching stud Scott Kazmir from the New York Mets. This past off-season, management made a handful of solid deals that have lifted the Rays to the next level of contention, signing free agent closer Troy Percival, veteran bench bat Cliff Floyd, and another young starting pitcher in Matt Garza.

Manager Joe Maddon guided his charges past Seattle yesterday to win their 71st game, setting that new franchise record with almost two months remaining in the regular season. The victory pushed the Rays 4 1/2 games in front of the Bosox in that AL East race.

Fans should get used to this, as the Rays aren’t going away any time soon. Their young pitching is some of the best in all of baseball, a key that will keep them contenders all by itself. But those arms aren’t alone. Crawford is a somewhat anonymous superstar, and both Upton and Longoria are legitimate top-level talents who will be stars in Florida for years to come.

When the Rays dropped the ‘Devil’ from their nickname this past off-season, owner Stuart Sternberg said that the team was now the ‘Rays’ and would be a “beacon of light that radiates throughout Tampa Bay and across the entire state of Florida.”

I don’t know that he realized just how soon these young Rays would shine so brightly, but their play has central Florida square in baseball’s pennant race as the ‘Dog Days’ of August move along.

NOTE: The Rays suffered a double-jolt on the day of this article, with star outfielder Crawford and rookie phenom third baseman Longoria, the two biggest keys to their offense, going on the disabled list at the same time. Will be a true test for this young contender…..