Yankees, Red Sox hype could swallow Rays

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

In the middle of the season's first crisis, he didn't scare. Joe Maddon would not be Joe Maddon if he worked himself into a frenzy when the panic alert went from orange to red, so as the first half ended with his Tampa Bay Rays on a seven-game losing jag, he did not turn the color of a fire engine with rage nor did he try to summon his inner motivational speaker to rally the cause.

He told his young team to enjoy its time off.

And that was it, really. The job of a manager is to fill out lineup cards and call on the bullpen and play tactician, sure, but it's also a study in psychology, an on-the-fly assessment of 25 personalities and gauge of what response best suits the majority. For Maddon, the job is even tougher: His upstart Rays, the surprise of baseball and first-place team in the American League East, are so new to this racket of success there is no surefire formula.

Which renders him the chemist sitting in his lab, mixing potions, crossing his fingers that the compound doesn't explode into a cloud of smoke.

"If it's oppressive on a daily basis, it can wear you down," Maddon said. "If you have a veteran team and it rolls off their back, that doesn't necessarily matter. But if you have a young team, it could have a diminishing-returns effect. You need to know when to put the foot down and when to back off."

Part of the wonder in watching these Rays is that they're doing this – shaking up not only their division and league but the entire perception they reinforced with nearly a decade of disastrous management – almost all on instinct and talent. The Rays might not be conditioned to win – that's assuming winning is something learned, as those well-versed in it suggest – and yet they continue to do so.

Amid the Yankees-Red Sox overkill over the weekend, they toughed out a pair of wins in Kansas City. In the past, Rays-Royals might as well have been a Triple-A game, so it got buried beneath the familiar scenes. The Yankees had won eight straight games, traded for a .330-hitting outfielder and lockdown left-handed reliever and rekindled hope that Yankee Stadium might get a proper postseason farewell. The Red Sox got David Ortiz back, weathered another Manny Ramirez outburst and weighed whether they needed one more piece before the trading deadline.

The reality: Both are chasing the Rays.

"This is the point: We could try to romanticize the situation, sensationalize it, but we don't care what the Red Sox and Yankees do," Rays first baseman Carlos Peña said. "That is the right approach to take through all of this. We'll figure out at the end of the year where we're at.

"We need to focus what we've got at this moment, and that's the only place we can be. We know the power that lies in the present. The better we do that, the better we're going to be down the stretch. That's what we were doing earlier this year. We weren't chasing pennants or first place. We were just playing."

Already Scott Kazmir, the Rays' 24-year-old ace and somewhat of an elder statesman, called teammates out during the losing streak for concerning themselves more with the Yankees and Red Sox than themselves. Not even he can deny the allure of it.

That the Rays are in such company with nine players who haven't reached their 25th birthdays accounts for much of the behavior. The Yankees and Red Sox are baseball's two powerhouses, its iconic franchises that have combined for half of the last 12 World Series titles. The Rays are a franchise whose players once worried their paychecks were going to bounce.

"Their nerves are probably a little more calm than ours," Rays reliever J.P. Howell said. "That's going to be our battle. Staying calm. We've got to do it however we can."

For Howell, a boisterous sort who has turned into an integral part of Tampa Bay's bullpen, that means sitting in dead silence. He tries to internalize what's going on, where the Rays are. And still, there was no way he would miss Sunday night's game between New York and Boston on national television.

"Scouting report," he rationalized.

Perhaps he's got a point. Twelve of the Rays' first 15 games in September come against the Yankees and Red Sox. And of their 27 games in the final month, 17 are on the road, where they win at a 44 percent clip, compared to 71 at home.

So the Rays, more than a bat in right field or a left-handed reliever, crave the fortitude to make it through the season's final two months. That is not something available for prospects before July 31.

"There's not a need for experience so much as perspective," Pena said. "Having the right perspective allows us to play like ourselves. It takes a lot of maturity to do that. Sometimes it's almost like you need to let go, downplay the situation. We all have the capability of doing that."

Eventually, the onus circles back to Maddon. The Rays' new brass, president Matt Silverman and general manager Andrew Friedman, hired him after the 2005 season because of his smarts and his experience as bench coach of the Los Angeles Angels championship team and his willingness to balance traditional baseball philosophy with sabermetrics.

He might be too new-agey for some people, too bright for others. He's just right for these Rays.

"We know we're as good as anybody else," Maddon said. "We know that. We've beaten the Cubs three times at home. We beat the Red Sox six times at home. We've done well against Toronto. We lead the season series with the Angels 4-2. So we know we can play with anybody.

"But you have to be able to play with anybody in September."

In a month, they'll learn whether they can do so or if the whole season, the one that introduced Tampa Bay as a power now and in the future, will have gone for naught, up in a cloud of smoke.

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