ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Aside from that little Don Larsen World Series thing in 1956, Tampa Bay probably was the most unlikely perfect game victim in baseball history.
Of the 18 regular-season perfectos (dating back to 1880!), the Rays' .733 winning percentage (22-8) was by far the best of those clubs on the wrong end. That previous dubious distinction was held jointly by two Dodgers clubs, each with a .583 winning percentage: The 1988 crew (84-60) that endured a perfect game from Cincinnati's Tom Browning, and the 1991 club (56-40) that was blanked by Montreal's Dennis Martinez.
|Carlos Pena may not be in Tampa next season, so the onus is to win now. (AP)|
We're about to verify that over these next four-plus months.
Sunday's lesson in Braden-omics notwithstanding, these Rays are playing with the focus of a zealot and a will of steel. Manager Joe Maddon challenged them early this spring to get off the starting block quickly. While the skipper loved the focus this spring, even he couldn't have predicted how thoroughly the Rays would have vaporized everything in their path over the season's first six weeks.
But now that you mention it. ...
"I've said from Day 1 this spring, focus," Maddon says. "I see it when I look in their eyes, I see it when they're preparing for a game, I see it in in-game intensity.
"I love the way we're running to first base right now, and I love the way we're making the turn. I love our starting pitching. I love the way we're playing defense.
"Everyone is concerned with what happened [Sunday in Oakland]. I'm not concerned because I like our process. I want us to see pitches. I want us not to expand the strike zone.
"Our focus has been spectacular."
Baltimore manager Dave Trembley told colleague Danny Knobler that the Rays are playing like they're on a mission. Alex Rodriguez congratulated Dallas Braden on Sunday, then quickly said the best part of it was that he blanked Tampa Bay.
As things now stand, the Big Ray Machine not only is making opponents bring their A game, it's sending a strong early message to rivals.
"For sure we're on a mission," Pena says. "We're more single-minded than you think."
Across the board:
• The Rays' 174 runs as this week begins ranked second in the AL, trailing only the Yankees (178).
• They allowed only 94 runs, fewest in the majors through a season's first 31 games since Billy Martin's 1981 A's allowed 81.
• That run-differential of plus-80 (their 174 scored vs. 94 allowed)? It matches that of the 1912 New York Giants as the fifth-greatest run differential after 31 games since 1900.
• Their 13-3 road record is the majors' best after 16 road games since the 2003 Yankees also went 13-3.
• At a major-league best 22-9, the Rays are off to the best start in club history.
"I think there is an element of 'Nothing replaces a win' for us," veteran outfielder Gabe Kapler says. "There's nothing like, 'Boy, we struck some balls well tonight even though we lost.'
"This team is really, really focused on winning baseball games, more than any team I've been on.
Tampa Bay Rays
"It's hard, because I've felt myself comparing us to the 2004 Red Sox [World Series winners]. And that team was special. But I can't not say this is the most talented team I've ever been on, physically. I believe it is."
There are at least two different readily identifiable motivators for the Rays' maniacal early drive.
One, principal owner Stuart Sternberg said last winter that the Rays will drastically cut payroll following this season, and many believe this is the last round-up for a core group that includes left fielder Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena.
Two, after their inspirational 2008 World Series run, the Rays were left with an empty feeling in '09 when they failed to qualify for the playoffs. Painful memories of their 9-14 start last April is what caused Maddon to emphasize a strong start this spring.
In the clubhouse, the players will go along with the second reason as a motivating factor, but not the first.
"For me, no," All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria says of any notion of let's-win-before-ownership-breaks-us-up. "Obviously, all that talk is out there and, at the heart of everything, we understand what could happen.
"But I'm sure it weighs more on Carl and Carlos than it does on us. We've got to worry about winning games and let it play out."
Says reliever Grant Balfour, who also is a free agent this winter: "I don't like to think of this as 'let's go out with a bang and then this team is going to fall to nothing.' I don't like to look at it that way. It would be tough losing a lot of these players. There would be some big shoes to fill with some guys. You'd hate to see Carl and Carlos go. They've done a lot for this team.
"But it's not for me to say. I'm not the one writing the checks."
Now, if you want to talk about the void left by having an empty October in '09, well, the Rays will allow room for that as fuel for their mission. During a discussion with a small group of teammates this spring, Crawford urged them to "go out and win every game." Knowing that would be impossible, the Rays nevertheless got the message.
"That really stuck with me," Longoria says. "I think we've done a real good job with that up to this point, as evidenced by our record. Other than [Sunday], we've done a real good job of being in every game. We lost one game 10-0 to the Yankees [April 10] but, other than that, I think we've been in every one."
Much of this has been made possible by a stellar rotation: David Price (1.91 ERA), Matt Garza (2.09 entering Monday's start here) and Jeff Niemann (2.23) all rank among the top 10 in AL ERA. Meantime, James Shields (3.13) and Wade Davis (3.18) aren't exactly slackers.
That sets up the bullpen -- including new closer Rafael Soriano (who has yet to blow a save in eight opportunities) -- for success, and the Rays' engine continues to purr.
They know there is a heck of a long way to go and, as the veteran Kapler says, the real serious tests for teams like the Rays often do not come until July and August, when fatigue sets in, nagging aches are barking and the temptation for the mind to wander is the greatest.
But for now, here's one more small snapshot of Tampa Bay's mental sharpness and killer instinct: Though the Rays rank a pedestrian eighth in the AL with a .251 team batting average, they lead the majors at .321 with runners in scoring position.
Now, maybe that indicates that Tampa Bay's good fortune soon will slow, and maybe that miniscule, half-game lead over the Yankees will become the first clear mirage of 2010.
Or maybe, as Kapler says, "this team has the physical ability to be the best in baseball wire-to-wire."
Says Maddon: "Sunday was the first time I didn't see us with our normal energy. We've been on the road a lot [18 of their first 32 games], we've been in cold weather, and our guys have not complained about one thing. Not one thing.
"I love it."