No joke

O, BY THE WAY

Team's success puts O's goals in sight

On Tampa Bay's winning season

August 12, 2008|By BILL ORDINE

If there is any justice in the baseball universe, the Tampa Bay Rays will go on to the postseason to complete one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the game's history. Over the weekend, the Rays earned their 71st victory of the season to set a franchise record. Granted, the franchise is only 11 years old, but since 1998, the Rays have finished higher than fifth place in the American League East just once (in 2004, when they went 70-91) and have won less than 40 percent of their games in half of their seasons.

As other observers have pointed out, their losing ways were so legendarily epic they were frequently grist for late night comics.

Just last year, David Letterman ruminated on a Tampa Bay loss to the New York Yankees, quipping: "Oh my goodness, listen to this: Yesterday, [the Yankees] played the Tampa Bay Devil Rays - they beat them 21-4, 21-4. And after the game, that crooked NBA ref said, 'Don't look at me.' "

In another jab, a Letterman top 10 list once gave this as a sign that a baseball team was on drugs: "Your first baseman demanded a trade to the Devil Rays."

That was then, though, and in the now, the division-leading Rays (71-46) have put significant daylight between themselves and second-place Boston and third-place New York after winning 10 of their past 12 games. According to one formula on ESPN.com, Tampa Bay has an 87.2 percent chance of making the playoffs. Only the Los Angeles Angels, with a double-digit lead in the AL West, have a better chance, about 99 percent.

Aside from the charm of an underdog finally having its day, the story of the 2008 Rays should appeal to Orioles fans for the obvious reason: If they can do it, anyone can.

Tampa Bay's success has been built on a young, hungry roster that has a sprinkling of farm-grown stars, including rookie third baseman Evan Longoria and outfielder B.J. Upton. Both were No. 1 picks. Another Tampa Bay first-round pick, outfielder Rocco Baldelli, was back in the lineup Sunday after being injured for almost a year. Outfielder Carl Crawford, who just went on the disabled list, was a second-round pick. Pitchers James Shields and Andy Sonnanstine (a combined 21-13) were also drafted by Tampa Bay.

Known for running a bargain-basement operation, the Rays actually spent a few bucks in the offseason, raising their payroll nearly 80 percent, although it's still next-to-last in the majors at a little more than $43 million.

Meanwhile, the Yankees, who administered that 21-4 beat-down Letterman referred to last year, are struggling to stay in contention for a wild-card spot - with a major league-high $209 million payroll.

Perhaps it all calls for another top 10 list for, say, the most overpriced things in New York City: the Yankees' batting order and whoever is pitching that day.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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