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Look who's having all the fun in the AL East

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
Look who's having all the fun in the AL East
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Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon is credited with creating a winning culture where players thrive

The Tampa Bay Rays lost a baseball game Tuesday night, which meant, for a change, the New York Yankees won one.

So now, employing some optimism and imagination, you may assume the worst is over for the Yankees, as Jorge Posada(notes) had a couple hits out of the seven hole, Derek Jeter(notes) clawed from an 0-for-14 wreck, Alex Rodriguez(notes) hit a pair of home runs, and Joe Girardi stood tall again on the top step.

Sweaty, but tall.

Vulnerable, but tall.

You may, for the moment, assume the Yankees are not old, but elegant; that they are not flawed, but craftily assembled; that they are not shaken, but stirred.

Except that, today, that more aptly describes the Rays, who once again exist in the vacuum formed between the monolithic Yankees and the gluttonous Boston Red Sox – or is that gluttonous Yankees and monolithic Red Sox?

For pennies on the dollar, the Rays are again shaming a league that is designed for them to fail.

From a 1-8 record to 24-18, from ominous to first, they disregard the inevitable. As the antidote to one-size-fits-all roster building, the Rays brew their seasons in the musty corners other franchises dare not tread. Rather than stack egos upon dollars upon excess, they create a baseball team that understands what it is, that doesn't believe the hype and – rather than expecting to win – works to win.

The Rays, from Joe Maddon up and from Joe Maddon down, have created a culture that separates them from the rest of the game.

"I believe in the names on the backs of your jerseys," Maddon tells his boys every spring, and wouldn't you know they end up believing in the same thing.

About half the roster turned over following last season's AL East title, and while the Yankees were turning on themselves and the Red Sox were searching for pitching, offense and chemistry, the Rays settled into the Maddon cocoon, pitched a little better, found a few reliable swings, and beat them both to something like a familiar rhythm.

Remember, as bad as the Rays once were, what remains of them hardly recall a time when they didn't stand with the Yankees and the Red Sox. Competence isn't new. Division titles aren't new. World Series appearances aren't new.

This is who they are. Maybe they lose in the end, maybe they do get overrun by the hundreds of millions of dollars that separate them from teams YES and NESN, but it won't be because the Rays forget who they are. Generally, it seems, players are better when they are Rays – more productive, more resilient, and, quite possibly, happier.

Doubt it?

Then explain Carl Crawford(notes), who left the nest for Boston and – even two weeks into a reasonable May – is batting .208, is holding down the eighth spot in the order, and talks freely about the weight of his new burden.

Carlos Pena, as a Chicago Cub, is on pace to hit half the number of home runs he did last season and owns a career-low OPS.

Rafael Soriano(notes), for the Yankees, has a 5.40 ERA, a sore elbow and a date with the disabled list.

Joaquin Benoit(notes), as a setup man for the Detroit Tigers, has the worst ERA (7.98) among AL relievers with at least 14 innings pitched.

Matt Garza(notes), traded to the Cubs, is 2-4 with a 4.17 ERA.

Dan Wheeler(notes) has more than tripled his ERA in Boston, from 3.35 in 64 appearances last season to 11.32 – and a DL assignment – in 11 appearances in this one.

Jason Bartlett's(notes) on-base percentage is down in San Diego, Lance Cormier's(notes) ERA is up in Los Angeles.

The couple that have continued to thrive – Grant Balfour(notes) in Oakland, Chad Qualls(notes) in San Diego – are the exceptions.

The Rays left behind, in the meantime, score three fewer runs than the Red Sox, slap together a bullpen that's better than all but two in the league, and overall out-pitch everybody in the division.

All, again, from an offseason that appeared devastating, from a 1-8 start, and for an audience that still doesn't believe. Attendance is down nearly 30 percent from last season and television ratings have fallen by more than a third.

So, what is it about the Tampa Bay Rays? How do they remain competitive in the face of personnel and payroll gut shots?

Well, starting pitching, of course. And they catch the ball. And Evan Longoria(notes), when he's on the field.

Otherwise, they show up, they get comfortable, they make the best of who they are, they play the game and they count it up later.

Players earn their big contracts in St. Petersburg, just not from the Rays. They become winners in St. Petersburg. They bat ninth when they're asked to. They grow old, become legacy players, get theirs', somewhere else.

"There's a familiarity and a comfort level there," said Cormier, who'd played in Arizona, Atlanta and Baltimore before the Rays, and the Dodgers since.

That's a Maddon thing. He asked them to "Find another way," this spring. But, it looks the same.

"It starts," said Dioner Navarro(notes), the catcher on the Rays' pennant-winning team, "with the personality of Joe Maddon. Then, there's not a lot of pressure down there. There's not a lot of eyes on you. We didn't worry about anything. We just went and had fun. It makes all the difference."

Anybody think the Yankees are having fun?