Maddon has Rays facing a Hardy challenge

The real question, I guess, is whether Troy Percival, a flannel man by DNA, would present better in the "Platinum Flocked" Double Sleeve or the "Making It Hurt" Tie Dye, or if he'll go big with the "Death or Glory" Gradient Foil.

For the next 10 days, the Tampa Bay Rays don't belong to Percival, the closer and team leader awash in September perspective, or to Joe Maddon, the clunky-spectacled manager who has top-stepped this flight from doormat to juggernaut.

This posse runs now with Ed Hardy, the high-end T-shirt designer.

In a plan conceived by Maddon, financed by Cliff Floyd, the (Def) Rays will roll through Toronto, Boston and New York wearing jeans and Ed Hardy's finest on all travel days.

With a sport coat, of course.

"If you're traveling, you've got to be in Ed Hardy," Maddon said. "Even Zim. Zim's gotta have one on."

You'd think they'd make an exception and put 77-year-old Rays advisor Don Zimmer in Joe Hardy. But, no.

The racks of T-shirts – each item costing as much as $200 – began arriving Wednesday night. By Thursday night, with the fly Rays bound for their last big road trip, they were still leading the AL East, still playing for the best record in baseball, still carrying the best story of a remarkable season. And they were sartorially slammin', yo.

Maddon's message was as clear as the day he assumed dugout control of the moribund franchise going on three seasons ago, back when the organization's high-water mark was 70 wins in 2004.

"We gotta keep it light, man," Maddon said.

The Rays are coming off their best month ever, a 21-win August that guaranteed them their first relevant September, for a roster that – put together – possesses all the postseason know-how of 32 at-bats and 43 1/3 innings pitched. So, the final weeks loom, the Boston Red Sox trailing by one swing weekend. And Maddon, who wrapped up AL Manager of the Year even before hurricane season, continues a course set in February, if not two years earlier.

It's about this pitch. This at-bat. This inning. If that sounds a lot like Mike Scioscia, that's because Maddon did his post-graduate work at Scioscia U. The idea is to keep September small, even by Rays' standards.

"The biggest thing is to try not to change anything," Maddon said, wardrobes apparently not included. "I'm intently trying to go to the ballpark setting up the same way. No stern talks. No extra batting practice. No big meetings. That is the trick to the whole thing. Just because the calendar says it's a different month doesn't mean it's a different race."

After all, it's not the players' fault so few of them have playoff experience; most of them have only played for the Rays. But, as was established in five breakthrough months under the stylings of the funky-cool Maddon, the little Rays might actually be ready for serious hardball.

"I'd like to think it's a consistency about the day," said Maddon, who lost 101 games in his first season in Tampa and 96 in his second. "By being consistent, you build up trust. I think we've gone from an organization of very low trust to a very high-trust organization, a superficial place to a real-life place."

Slowly, Maddon got them to believe. Then, quickly, they began to win. Now, here they are, in the midst of a flurry of games against the Red Sox and New York Yankees, in a September they're supposed to win.

"We're trying to be vigilant to the day," Maddon said. "Whatever happens, good or bad, move on to the next day."

In the press box Thursday afternoon, Rays' PR man Rick Vaughn held up his new T-shirt to the light.

"Ugh," he said, "I don't even know if I can read it. Let's see, what does this say? Says something about 'Affliction.' A skull, top hat, something in his mouth. Here it is, 'Affliction Aficionado.'"

Vaughn laughed. "I can't wait to put mine on," he said.

Of all the luck. Zim probably got "Death or Glory."

Other AL Manager of the Year candidates: Ron Gardenhire, Minnesota Twins; Ozzie Guillen, Chicago White Sox; Mike Scioscia, Los Angeles Angels; Terry Francona, Boston Red Sox.