Talk of AL's elite teams must include Rays
ARLINGTON -- The teams with the two best records in the American League are face to face this weekend. The Tampa Bay Rays would like to make the point that there isn't all that much distance between first and second.
The Rays held up their end of the argument on Friday night, defeating the Rangers, 8-4. The Rays (13-7) have been very good. The Rangers (15-5) had seemed semi-unbeatable, at least prior to Friday.
The Rays/Rangers matchup does not automatically ring bells as one of the game's great rivalries, but lately, it's been front and center. Tampa Bay has been a postseason qualifier three of the last four seasons, but Texas has won the AL pennant the last two. In both of those years, the Rangers eliminated the Rays in a Division Series.
And this year, from all early indications, these will be postseason teams again. There had been a lot of talk about how the Angels had moved beyond the Rangers with the acquisition of Albert Pujols, not to mention the grabbing of former Rangers starter C.J. Wilson from the free-agent market.
But at the close of business on Friday night, the Angels were nine games behind the Rangers. Pujols was not hitting, the Angels were not winning. The Rangers, meanwhile, were compiling a terrific record for completely logical reasons -- they entered the weekend leading the league in both runs scored and team ERA.
But the Rays belong in the conversation now, just as they have since 2008. After they shed considerable payroll before the 2011 season but still qualified for the postseason, there can be no doubting the strength of the organization. So when manager Joe Maddon discusses the Rangers, he gives them their due, but he does not place them on a pedestal.
"They're a really good team, just like we are," Maddon said. "They're off to a really good start. We've had some really good matchups with them over the last couple of years, including the playoffs. I have a ton of respect for their organization as well as their team on the field. They're really, really good, and they've created a wonderful culture.
"We're creating somewhat of a rivalry now between the two teams based on [the fact that] they've gotten us a couple of times, and we're hoping to return the favor."
But returning the favor won't be easy. The Rangers have won a club-record six consecutive series to begin the season. Dating back to last year, they have won 12 straight regular-season series, also a club record.
But on Friday night the Rays beat the Rangers in a couple of fundamental ways, first by getting to starter Matt Harrison early and often. The Rays scored four runs in the first, three on an Evan Longoria home run. Harrison had been unbeaten in three starts this season, but the Rays reached him for 14 hits, tying a Rangers record for hits allowed by one pitcher.
Near the end of the game, Rays reliever Wade Davis kept the Rangers off the board with a dramatic eighth-inning performance.
"Player of the game for me," Rays starter -- and winning pitcher -- James Shields said of Davis.
With a sellout crowd of 47,496 making a suitable amount of pro-Rangers noise, with the wind gusting out to right, with the bases loaded -- twice -- and, finally, with Josh Hamilton on deck, the game was on the line.
"I've never been to the playoffs, but I imagine that's what it's like," Rays catcher Chris Gimenez said later.
What Gimenez told Davis earlier was to throw fastballs to Elvis Andrus, who in the eighth inning stepped up to the plate representing the tying run with the bases loaded. The Rays would sink or swim with Davis' best pitch and force Andrus to hit his way on base rather than reach with a walk that would have brought up Hamilton as the potential lead run.
After falling behind to Andrus, 3-0, Davis threw eight fastballs. Andrus took two for strikes, then fouled off five straight, including one that was narrowly foul beyond the right-field foul pole, before eventually lining out to center.
"That's the most intense 8-4 game you're going to see in April of any year," Maddon said.
There was no reason to dispute this call.
Maddon had suitably declared to his team that this one-city, three-game road trip would be a "minimalist" excursion. Pack light, accept no distractions and just play.
"No need to go all out with the $2,000 suit to impress anybody on the tarmac," he said. "Let's just go and play well and play hard and not worry about the superfluous [garbage] that sometimes gets in the way."
That appeared to be a very workable approach based on the result of the opener, even though this late-April series won't decide anything for keeps.
"Regardless of what happens over these three games, I think both clubs are going to be there at the end of the year," Maddon said.
It is just that when the elite AL teams are discussed, the conversation cannot be complete without the Rays.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.