The Rays have crossed the midway point of the schedule with a record that is 19 games above .500. That may be stunning to many because the Rays never won more than 70 games in any of their first 10 seasons, and finished out of last place in the American League East just once in their existence. However, the Rays are 51-32 and have a 2½-game lead over the defending World Series champion Red Sox in the division, having beaten Boston each of the first two games of their showdown series in Tampa Bay, which concludes tonight.

“We left spring training knowing we would be better,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “We had expectations coming into the season for the first time ever. We felt we would win our share of games. At the same time, I don’t think anybody saw this coming. I don’t think even the biggest optimist could have foreseen that we would have one of the best records in the major leagues at the beginning of July.”

PECOTA certainly thought of the Rays as winners coming into this season, as it projected Tampa Bay to go 90-72. People around baseball are also coming to the realization that the Rays are more than a team off to a fluky start, as they have the best record in baseball. “I don’t think this team is going to fall out of the race,” rookie third baseman Evan Longoria said. “We have a solid all-around team. We have good pitching, both starting and relieving, we score runs and we play good defense. I think we have everything you would look for in a contending team. “I also know that there isn’t a guy in this clubhouse who feels we’re a fluke. We’re not cocky by any means but we also have the confidence of a team that knows it can compete with anyone.”

That air of confidence has never been there before, and it makes those bad days of the Vince Naimoli ownership era seem like a lifetime ago instead of just three years removed. “The great thing about it is that the people in the Tampa Bay area are really starting to get into this team,” Rays right fielder Eric Hinske said. “When we go out to restaurants and other public places people are starting to notice us. I know that’s never happened before and it’s nice. This franchise has gone through some tough times, and it’s nice to see things changing.”

The Rays have every reason to feel good. As Longoria said, they have performed well in all areas, as they are second in the major leagues in defensive efficiency (.713), sixth in runs allowed per game (4.04), and 10th in runs scored per game (4.72).

Hinske leads the offense with a .305 EqA, while Longoria has a .303 mark and center fielder B.J. Upton is at .299. The Rays also lead the major leagues with 88 stolen bases. Maddon observes, “We have good speed, so we use it but our philosophy is that we want to use our speed to help win games and not potentially lose them. We stress stealing bases when the odds are in our favor and it makes the most sense. We are also a team with good power. I don’t think you can succeed in today’s game strictly on speed. You have to have some power hitting to win.”

Leading the Rays’ rotation has been left-hander Scott Kazmir with a 2.5 SNLVAR, and right-handers Matt Garza, James Shields, and Edwin Jackson have been solid. The bullpen has been a revelation after being the worst in the major leagues last season, with left-hander J.P. Howell and reclamation project Grant Balfour providing assists to closer Troy Precival and veteran set-up man Dan Wheeler.

Maddon credits much of the renaissance to Percival, who returned to the major leagues last season with the Cardinals after sitting out a year in retirement. Percival, who has been slowed by a strained hamstring over the last month, is ninth on the career saves list with 343. “You can’t underestimate the importance of someone pitching the ninth inning who has done it before,” Maddon said. “But what Percy has meant to this team goes beyond just closing games. He has allowed the rest of the bullpen to settle into roles where they have thrived and he has brought a veteran presence to a very young clubhouse that is hard to quantify.”

Confidence is hard to quantify too, but the Rays have it now that Tampa Bay is a player in a division dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox for the better part of a decade. With a young nucleus of talent at the major league level, a good crop of pitchers in the minor leagues, and shortstop Tim Beckham, the first overall pick in this year’s first-year player draft, just beginning his professional career, the Rays are seemingly poised to challenge in the division for the foreseeable future.

“There has always been a school of thought that maybe we should push to get out of the division so we could get away from the Yankees and Red Sox, but I’ve never believed that was a good idea,” Maddon said. “You want to play the best competition possible and I don’t think anyone can doubt that we do that when you also take into account that the Blue Jays and Orioles are also in the division and playing those four teams account for about 80 games each season. When you face good competition, it increases a team’s confidence. There is no doubt our players have that confidence and feel good about what we’ve accomplished. There is also a long way to go. We don’t want to just be satisfied with having a good half-season, we want to have a good full season and be playing in October. That’s the goal.”

Not only have the Red Sox ceded the AL East lead to the Rays, but they have also been hit by quite a bit of turmoil. Boston needed extra security for the series at Tampa Bay because of a recent mailed threat made to its black and Latin players. Manager Terry Francona declined comment on the situation, and most of the players seemed unaware of the threat.

Injured designated hitter David Ortiz tried to make light of the matter. “Somebody wants to hurt Papi?,” he said. “If you hurt Papi, the world’s against you. There are some people out there who have nothing to do and like to send letter to people like Manny [Ramirez] or myself. I guess it’s part of what we do and I don’t think there’s anything crazy that will come out of it.”

Meanwhile, Ramirez had issues of his own after shoving Jack McCormick, the Red Sox’s 64-year-old traveling secretary, to the ground during an incident in the visitors’ clubhouse at Minute Maid Park in Houston last Saturday. The Providence Journal reported that Ramirez was upset when McCormick informed him that he might not be able to fulfill the mercurial left fielder’s request for 16 tickets for that night’s game with the Astros.

In some respects, Ramirez’s actions were no different than Astros pitcher Shawn Chacon grabbing general manager Ed Wade by the neck and throwing him to the ground during a clubhouse altercation three days earlier. While Chacon was suspended and then released, Ramirez’s penalty appeared to be nothing more than a fine, as the Red Sox would not disclose what disciplinary action was taken. “Sometimes things happen,” Francona said. “When they do, we choose to handle them internally. I’m satisfied with how we handled this.”

Ramirez and McCormick both downplayed the incident. “That’s over. We’re fine now,” Ramirez said. McCormick announced, “It was an unfortunate misunderstanding, and it’s over with as far as I’m concerned.”

The Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance on behalf of Chacon on Tuesday, a day after he cleared waivers and was released without pay. The MLBPA claims the Astros improperly terminated Chacon’s contract and owe him the remaining $983,607 of his $2 million salary this season. Most likely, the matter will wind up being settled by an independent arbitrator.

Wade was tight-lipped about the matter. “As part of the collective bargaining agreement, that’s their right to do that,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “Other than that, I really don’t have a reaction to it. He’s a free agent. Whatever course is taken down the road, it’s something that’s out of our hands. He’s not our player anymore.”

Paragraph 1 of Rule 7 of the uniform player contract states that if a player clears waivers, he can be terminated with written notice if the player “fails, refuses or neglects to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship and good sportsmanship or to keep himself in first-class physical condition or to obey the club’s training rules.”

After the Cubs swept a three-game series from the White Sox at Wrigley Field from July 20-22, it was losing manager Ozzie Guillen praising his cross-town rivals. When the White Sox turned the tables and swept the Cubs last weekend at U.S. Cellular Field, it was Lou Piniella‘s turn to praise the winners. Piniella said the White Sox should win the American League Central “by a half-dozen games or more. They’re a good ballclub.”

However, the White Sox laughed off those nice words. “Apparently, Lou hasn’t seen the rest of our division,” catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. “That’s a compliment, I guess, from Lou. They’re already leading their division, so I think he was looking in the mirror and got confused about what team he was talking about.”

Meanwhile, Piniella seemed happy that Chicago’s City Series is over for another year–unless of course the Cubs and White Sox wind up meeting in the World Series for the first time since 1906. He paused 13 seconds when asked if he was glad the Cubs were through with the White Sox in the regular season. “You know, the fans like it, and what it all boils down to is what the fans like and don’t like,” Piniella said. “That’s what you play for. They’re the ones who support this. So if the fans are for it, I’m for it. Doesn’t bother me. The interleague thing, it breaks up the NL schedule a little bit. If the fans like this–and they do, every game is sold out–just keep playing. But six [games] is enough.”

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Cubs feel they need another front-line starting pitcher to have a legitimate shot to win the World Series, and would love to trade for a left-hander, with the IndiansC.C. Sabathia at the top of their list, and the PadresRandy Wolf and Blue Jays’ (right-handed) A.J. Burnett as fallback options. … The Cardinals feel they have a solid chance at overtaking the Cubs in the NL Central, and will make a play for closer Brian Fuentes and outfielder Matt Holliday if the Rockies decide to be sellers. … Padres right fielder Brian Giles has limited no-trade protection and does not want to leave his native San Diego, but would be agreeable to a trade to either the Dodgers or Angels. … In addition to finding a catcher and center fielder, the Marlins are looking for relief help, and are scouting a number of right-handers, including the RedsDavid Weathers, the Orioles’ Chad Bradford, the Yankees’ LaTroy Hawkins, and the White Sox’s Mike MacDougal. … The Dodgers may release outfielder Mark Sweeney once they begin getting players back from the disabled list.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Red Sox are considering looking for bullpen help before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline and the left-handed Fuentes is among the relievers they will likely try to deal for. … The White Sox are again offering infielder Juan Uribe to various teams, and the Orioles, who need shortstop help, may bite. … The Tigers seem to have the most interest among the many teams evaluating right-hander Freddy Garcia, who is a free agent recovering from shoulder surgery. Garcia will throw in front of scouts about 10 days before the trade deadline. … Chances seem good that the Twins‘ new stadium will be called Best Buy Ballpark.

Scouts’ views on various major league players:

  • Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla: “He’s a stocky guy but he has those huge forearms, and that helps him generate power. He also never seems to get jammed. He has a unique ability to get the barrel of the bat on the ball regardless of where it’s pitched. It’s a special skill.”
  • Brewers outfielder Gabe Kapler: “It’s hard to believe he spent last year in the minor leagues managing [Low-A Greenville, a Red Sox farm club]. He’s always been one of the best-conditioned players in the game and he’s in better shape than ever. The year off seemed to do him some good. His legs look fresher and his bat seems quicker.”
  • Mets second baseman Luis Castillo: “I don’t know what [GM] Omar Minaya was thinking signing this guy back for four years as a free agent [last winter]. His legs are shot and speed was his whole game. He can’t steal bases anymore and doesn’t have much range. He’s cooked.”
  • Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol: “He looks really tired to me, his arm is dragging, and his stuff isn’t as crisp. He’s a helluva young pitcher but [manager] Lou Piniella has been forced to ride him really hard this season and the wear and tear is showing.”
  • Twins left fielder Delmon Young: “He’s really struggled from the get-go, but you can see his bat starting to come around. He’s a good player who looks like he is putting pressure on himself because he’s with a new team. Once he relaxes, I’d bet he’ll finish the season really strong.”

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