1st-place Rays turn East upside down

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Pennant fever is alive in the oddest of places.

Ticket lines are longer, television ratings are rising and the young, budget-minded Tampa Bay Rays are in first place in the AL East, looking down on the big-spending Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

'First-place Rays halfway to history,' read one newspaper headline. Three days later, the surprise owners of baseball's best record awakened to 'Lowering The Broom,' 'How Sweep It Is.'

'It's a really good feeling,' manager Joe Maddon said after Wednesday night's 7-6 victory over Boston gave the Rays (52-32) their second home sweep of the Red Sox and a 31/2-game lead in the division. 'We've worked to get to this point, to earn that right to have that feeling, so now we have to maintain it.'

The Rays open a series at Tropicana Field tonight against Kansas City, hoping to build on what has created this stunning turnaround: consistent pitching, improved defense and a knack for producing just enough offense.

This team has not only escaped the cellar and climbed into playoff contention. It is proving it can compete with baseball's elite.

By rallying from a three-run, seventh-inning deficit to hand the Red Sox their fifth straight defeat, the Rays became the first team to sweep two series of three or more games from Boston in the same season since the Yankees in 2001.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Tampa Bay is the first team other than New York or Boston to lead the AL East this late in a season since 2000, when Toronto led on July 6 before finishing third.

'I'd be surprised if they're not in the hunt the whole way,' Boston's Mike Lowell said, noting the Rays are getting solid pitching from a young rotation headed by Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza.

'Not to take away from their offense, but without pitching, you can't slug every night,' Lowell added. 'Their pitching keeps them in games.'

And when the score is close, the Rays feel they will find a way to win.

They are 16-10 in one-run games. And, it's not as if they've been feasting on bad teams while becoming the second club in major league history to have the best record in the majors this deep into a season after finishing with the worst mark the previous year.

Of Tampa Bay's first 84 games, 56 were against teams with winning records at the time, and 69 have been against teams currently above .500. Among the club's seven sweeps, six have come at home, with the AL West-leading Angels and NL Central-leading Cubs among the victims.

'There's a long way to go,' center fielder B.J. Upton said.