BALTIMORE – Troy Percival tried to explain the success of the Tampa Bay Rays, and he kept talking, like he needed to reinforce the whole believability of the thing, because the Rays have been baseball's real-life Charlie Brown, only with a rap sheet, and now they're headed to Boston this weekend with first place in the American League East on the line, the thought of which finally prompted him to pause, before finishing his soliloquy with this:
"And we haven't got Kazmir yet."
Two lockers over from Percival's, after the Rays' 4-2 victory to take a series from Baltimore, Scott Kazmir pulled on a dress shirt and readied for the trip to Boston. He rejoined the Rays earlier this week after missing the first month with a strain in his pitching elbow and was stunned at what he saw.
Success is to the Rays as taste is to tofu, and for them to sit atop the titan of baseball divisions percentage points ahead of the defending world champions – and three games up on the $200 million Yankees – in May. Well, it made Kazmir a little self-conscious.
"I just want to stay out of the way," he said.
The left-handed Kazmir is one of baseball's best young starters, an unquestioned No. 1, and for the Rays to be 16-12 without him epitomizes the surprise of their start. They were supposed to be good. The unspoken part of that forecast was the assignment of time: in a few months, maybe, or in a year, or by the beginning of the next decade. But now? This soon?
Tampa Bay's culture change has been years in the making, and it underwent its most drastic overhaul this offseason and spring. The Rays traded troubled outfielder Elijah Dukes, his propensity for allegedly smoking weed before games and the death threat toward his ex-wife and children to Washington. They unloaded talented outfielder Delmon Young to Minnesota for talented pitcher Matt Garza, who shut down the Orioles on Thursday. And they hammered out an unprecedented contract for third baseman Evan Longoria, preparing to guarantee him $19 million over six years and up to $44 million over nine before he played a day in the major leagues.
For years, the Rays have parlayed high draft picks into deep caches of talent, and the process has been like growing asparagus in a garden: it took three years to really develop, but when it did, the harvest was plentiful and satisfying.
"I've known it was going to be the case since I got drafted," Longoria said. "I was glad to be coming here, and it's why I was comfortable signing. It's not as much about the talent we've got but the direction we're going. That's what's exciting."
Up and down the Rays' roster there's promise. Longoria is a power-hitting, good-fielding third baseman, and the type of person Rays management thinks can turn into the AL version of David Wright. Carl Crawford is a demon in left field, B.J. Upton a burgeoning star in center and even Dioner Navarro is a potential big bat behind the plate.
No one worried about the Rays' hitting. Their pitching, ever-troubled, was considered a weakness, and yet with Kazmir coming off the disabled list to start Sunday against Boston, the Rays need to make a roster move and are genuinely conflicted on whether to take second-year starter Andy Sonnanstine out of the rotation or risk losing fifth starter Jason Hammel by designating him for assignment. Safe is Edwin Jackson, who finally is coming through with the promise he showed as a 20-year-old with the Dodgers.
"These are good decisions that we've never had to make in the past," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Never have the Rays had the luxury of a pitching plethora. They don't want to mess with their bullpen, and for good reason: three more scoreless innings Thursday dropped its earned-run average to a major-league-best 2.44. Percival, the 38-year-old who was retired at this time last year, has allowed three baserunners and no runs in 10 innings. His setup man, Dan Wheeler, pitched two perfect innings Thursday and has a 1.20 ERA. On and on it goes, down to J.P. Howell and Scott Dohmann, two Kansas City castoffs who have been innings-eating stalwarts.
And to think that last season the Rays trotted out the worst bullpen since the Eisenhower administration, a 6.16 ERA that might as well have been 6.66 for all the hell it brought them.
"We're coming out on a daily basis and we believe we can win that game," Maddon said. "Regardless of who we're playing, who's pitching against us, we believe we can win that game, and that matters."
Last weekend, the Rays swept Boston, Dohmann vulturing wins in the first two games and erstwhile ace James Shields outdueling Josh Beckett in the finisher. It was something of a coming-out party, the capper on a six-game winning streak, and it alerted everyone what the Rays have told themselves since the spring: it's not going to be three months, or a year, or a few years. It's now.
They're past Dukes and all his law-enforcement travails – at least for the most part, as reliever Al Reyes brought a little Devil back to the Rays when he got slugged in the face and tased while celebrating his birthday just a little too hard. They're not succumbing to adversity, the Kazmir injury a great example, and perhaps the strained shoulder Upton sustained Thursday – Maddon said it was less severe than a previous one that kept him out for three games.
Most of all, they're adopting the attitude of winners. It's a chicken-and-egg debate in baseball, whether winning creates the chemistry that players so often cite as imperative or chemistry leads to winning. Whatever it is, the Rays comport themselves like successes, laughing and smiling and joking.
"You think we need you?" Percival said, glancing at Kazmir.
"I really feel welcome," Kazmir said.
"Sorry," Percival said. "They had a dinner planned and didn't invite any of the relievers."
"You know why we did that?" Kazmir said. "The starters got left out opening day."
"That was get-to-know-your-'pen day," Percival said.
"Oh, OK," Kazmir said. "Let's get to know our starters then."
They looked at each other and laughed. It's good to be a Ray. And that wasn't the punch line.