Ultra-talented Rays are still right where they expected to be

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So when third baseman Evan Longoria and center fielder B.J. Upton had to be restrained from pummeling each other in the dugout at Tropicana Field on Sunday, a face-off almost identical to the one between Navarro and Garza two years ago, the Rays had to feel a warm wave of nostalgia sweep over them. Again, they are supposedly in tatters, with the Yankees and the Red Sox poised to take their rightful place atop the universe. And again, they are too talented to be dismissed.

Because the Rays 2008 season was so dreamlike, it can be hard to remember all that went wrong for them that summer. They lost seven games in a row at one point. They did not lead the American League East at the All Star break. They finished second to last in the AL in batting average. Upton was benched for not running out a ground ball. Carlos Pena did not even hit .250. Still, they won the pennant, not because they were charmed but because they were tested.

In many ways, they are in the same position now that they were then, nobody knowing exactly what to make of them. Are they the team that started the season 30-11, sweeping their way through Boston and New York, leading the league in runs in April and ERA in May? Or are they team that lost 20 of its next 35, was no-hit for the second time, and turned a six-game division lead into a two-game deficit?

According to their whip-smart manager, Joe Maddon, they are neither. "Too many times when a team goes well everybody becomes overjoyed about it and that's abnormal," Maddon said. "Then a team struggles and people get angry and that's way abnormal. All of this was expected. Who can expect to go wire-to-wire in the AL East?"

Maddon preached in spring training the importance of a quick start, in large part because the Rays went 9-14 last April, which doomed any hope of a repeat. By playing so well so early this year, the Rays elevated expectations to unreasonable heights, including their own. But Maddon maintains that if you gave him the option in the spring to be two games out of first on July 1, he would have taken it without hesitation. He is telling himself that this Rays season will be like a standard NBA game: Grab an early lead, blow it in the middle, and come back to win at the end.

Two years ago, Maddon might have had to sell the Rays on that notion, convincing them they are indeed the team they were in the first six weeks, and not the one they've been over the last six weeks. But that's no longer necessary, not with 181 wins the past two seasons, and not with a roster that includes four likely All Stars -- David Price, Rafael Soriano, Carl Crawford and Longoria. "We can look back now and have something to draw from," said starting pitcher James Shields.

If the Rays are to mount another surge, they may well view Thursday night as a touchstone. Down by one to the Twins in the ninth inning, Longoria hit a two-strike, two-out, game-tying double that set up a 10th inning win and had Maddon revisiting the old 9=8 equation he came up with two years ago -- nine players giving their all for nine innings yields one of eight post-season spots, his arithmetic went. "Feel the heat," he said after the game, tongue in cheek.

The Rays afforded themselves their June swoon, but with the way the Yankees and Red Sox are playing, it can last no longer. Although the Rays still lead the American League in ERA, offense is an issue, as it was in '08. Pena is batting .199, Jason Bartlett .220 and Upton .226. The Rays might be able to get away with that in the NL West, but not back east.

"We just haven't played good baseball in all aspects," Shields said. "We have to bear down and remember how well we played at the beginning. We know how much better off we could be right now."

The way the Rays kicked off the 2010 season, it was tempting to think of them running off with the division title and sealing up home-field advantage by September, but that was never realistic. Even though the Rays have arguably the best starting rotation in the majors and a minor-league system pumping out power arms, they are still outgunned in many ways by the Yankees and Red Sox.

So they are two games out with three months to play. For those who have only followed them this season, it's a disaster. For those with longer memories, it's an accomplishment. They have given themselves the only thing they can legitimately ask for on July 1: a chance to duplicate the dream.

Before the Rays first game at Target Field against the Twins on Thursday, Pena ran up the unfamiliar steps of the visiting dugout and tripped. He stumbled, lost his footing, and for a moment looked as though he might do a face-plant in the dirt. Then he kicked his heels, regained his balance, and kept running, which could be as much a symbol for the Rays' second half as any dugout dust-up.