By MIKE HENRY
When you look at their rotation, the Tampa Bay Rays don't resemble a contender.
Matt Garza, James Shields, David Price and Scott Kazmir are a combined 29-31, and Kazmir's 6.17 ERA is reminiscent of the franchise's early days (or the 1930 Phillies). Jeff Niemann (12-5, 3.87, two shutouts) has been the most reliable starter for Joe Maddon.
The Rays skipper has done a masterful job getting the maximum from his bullpen. J.P. Howell has 15 saves in 21 opportunities, so the late innings remain an area of grave concern for Tampa Bay fans.
So, with so-so pitching, what are the Rays doing breathing down the necks of the Red Sox and Rangers in the American League wild-card race?
It helps to know the Blue Jays are going belly-up every time you face them. Entering Wednesday's game, the Rays were 11-3 against Toronto, including Monday's comeback from a 6-3 deficit against Roy Halladay.
Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, the AL allows only 18 games against divisional opponents. Beginning Friday with a four-game series in Detroit, the Rays face a stretch of 17 consecutive games against playoff contenders that will either solidify their status as contenders or start management looking to fill the holes on the staff for 2010.
After returning home next week for three games against the Red Sox and Tigers, the Rays play four in Yankee Stadium and three in Fenway Park.
But despite the nagging doubts about pitching and the schedule, it's foolish to think the defending AL champions are going away any time soon.
The best thing the Rays have going for them is Maddon's cerebral, aggressive approach to the game, embraced by nearly everyone on the team.
Maddon stresses working at-bats and taking extra bases, and the unsung double-play combination of second baseman Ben Zobrist and shortstop Jason Bartlett have been the main beneficiaries. Bartlett's .346 average and Zobrist's power numbers -- 23 homers, 69 RBI -- are huge for middle infielders.
Throw in the game's best leadoff hitter, All-Star Game MVP Carl Crawford, and third baseman Evan Longoria, and opposing pitchers find it hard to pinpoint an easy out. And even though Carlos Pena has more home runs than singles -- 37-to-35 -- his .223 average is offset by 91 RBI.
Right now, I wouldn't argue the Rays are equal to the Yankees or the Angels. I do think the Rays are better than the Red Sox, whose second-half struggles and every-game-as-Greek-drama seem to make them a prime candidate to weaken in September.
In addition to their upcoming brutal stretch, the Rays must travel to Texas, where they've already lost three times. The Rangers show no signs of fading, so Tampa Bay has its work cut out.
But their starters, for all their 2009 struggles, know what it's like to pitch in important games, and Shields and Garza are better than their records. I don't expect the Rays to roll over for anyone over the next five-and-a-half weeks.