Rays pass litmus test

Ken Fidlin, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:05 AM ET

In New York this weekend, there’s talk of “the real opening day” with the first visit of the season by the Red Sox to Yankee Stadium, as if these two iconic franchises exist in a vacuum.

Meanwhile, on the eve of the latest skirmish in that ongoing rivalry, the Tampa Bay Rays slipped quietly into first place in the AL East by taking two of three in Cleveland, where the Indians have been the best home team in baseball.

How long the Rays stay there is up for debate but the very fact they got there is astounding, given that they only won one of their first nine games.

“If you’re looking for a little bit of a litmus test, there it was,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Where are we at right now? How we doing? We come back and beat them two games in their own yard, which is not an easy thing to do this year. So for a whole bunch of different reasons, I’m really pleased with our guys.”

Since a 1-8 start, the Rays have gone 21-7, best in the majors. They are starting to enjoy the view.

“The way we’re playing right now, I think we can go and play against anybody,” reliever Joel Peralta said. “The last couple weeks we’ve finally put the good hitting, defence and pitching together, which didn’t happen early in the season. And the bullpen has been really good, and it was supposed to be the question mark of the team.

In their last 28 games, Tampa has played .750 baseball. After that disastrous first nine-game stretch when the offence produced just over two runs per game, they are averaging over five runs per game. The real strength of the team has been its starting pitching, led by James Shields and David Price, both on a pace to pitch 225-plus innings. All five starters, including Jeff Niemann, Jeremy Hellickson and Wade Davis, are averaging better than five innings per game, thus keeping their rebuilt bullpen well-rested.

With both Boston and New York exhibiting some early-season vulnerability, if Tampa can do some business when they go head-to-head against either or both of those teams, then they might just stay up top for awhile.

Meanwhile, it’s safe to say their message to the Yanks and Red Sox is “Knock yourselves out, fellas.”

A GIANT LEAP

Another team that has rocketed up the charts is the San Francisco Giants who have weathered an early-season schedule that had them play 22 of their first 31 games on the road.

They came home this past week and reeled off a perfect 6-0 homestand behind their five-star pitching staff to move into first in the NL West. In sweeping the Rockies and the Diamondbacks this week, San Francisco pitchers allowed a total of 10 runs total, nine of them earned. In the process, they became the first team in baseball history to sweep a home stand while scoring no more than four runs in any of the games.

Now the Giants are back on the road for 14 of their next 26. When they leave St. Louis after their game on June 2, the Giants will have played 57 games, 36 of them on the road. If they are anywhere around first place at that time, they might be in a position to run away and hide on the rest of the division with a steady diet of home cooking.

WHAT’S WITH A-ROD?

On April 23, Alex Rodriguez went 2-for-5 with a homer and six RBIs in a 15-3 Yankee mauling of the Orioles. Since that game, through Thursday, A-Rod was 12-for-66 with just two extra-base hits and six RBIs in his next 17 games. With a .492 OPS, it is one of the worst stretches of his career. ... First it was steroids, then HGH. Now we learn the operation that resurrected Bartolo Colon’s shoulder and his career included stem cells extracted from his own bone marrow, raising yet more ethical questions. Somebody get an opener for this can of worms. ... White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen is going to try to ride herd on a six-man starting rotation. In a performance-based world, Jake Peavy would sit until Phil Humber proved his 2.67 ERA is just a mirage. But Peavy is making $16 million and owners hate to see a guy making that kind of coin just loitering. Owners are funny that way.


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