Every season since the franchise's inception (1998), the Tampa Bay Rays have served as the doormat for the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
That's putting it lightly.
In 2007, the Red Sox finished the regular season with a 96-66 record, while the Rays finished with those same two numbers, just flip-flopped. The Yankees were 94-68.
In 2006, the Yankees were an AL East best 97-65, while the Red Sox were 86-76. The Rays finished with 101 losses that season.
In 2005, both the Yankees and Red Sox finished 95-67, while the Rays, still playing the role of doormat, finished 67-95.
Tampa Bay has been awful. That's understood.
Boston and New York have been the class of the AL East for a long time now, also understood.
But, in 2008, a shift in AL East power has been brewing. Boston is still the class of the division, but a youthful, athletic Tampa Bay squad has solidified itself as one of the best teams in baseball.
New York, on the other hand, has solidified itself as one of the worst teams in the majors relative to pitching, as it possesses a 4.51 team ERA through June 8.
At 37-26 through June 8 and a game-and-a-half back of the defending World Series champs, it could be a bit premature to proclaim the young Rays as a contender.
But I don't think so. The Rays' most important and decorated players—Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton—were all born in the 1980s. This suggests the team's youth.
Inexperienced by most standards, this team is not intimidated by the lore of the Sox or Yanks.
Proof can be found from the June 5 brawl at Fenway Park. Rays pitcher James Shields hit Red Sox outfielder Coco Crisp with a pitch in the second inning this past Thursday, prompting a bench-clearing scuffle that resulted in multiple player suspensions.
Crisp attacked Shields, but was taken to the ground by Rays catcher Dioner Navarro, then swarmed by Jonny Gomes, Akinori Iwamura and Carl Crawford.
Shields' teammates had his back.
Because this team is young. They have no fear. They're confident. They have chemistry.
"I'm so excited about what's to come," said Rays first baseman Carlos Pena. "Being from Boston, I understand these rivalries, mostly Red Sox-Yankees, but I think we're going to see a good rivalry with Boston and our team.
"I can see that the teams really respect one another. There's no reason why we can't keep up in the standings and be a contender, and we know that Boston's going to be there."
To become a legitimate rivalry, though, the Rays are going to need to get some wins in Boston. Tampa Bay has yet to do so in 2008, posting an 0-6 record at Fenway.
Those wins will come, however. More punches as well, I'm sure.
And was it at all obvious that I haven't mentioned that team from the Bronx in a while?
Tampa Bay has gone from the doormat to the penthouse, while New York is on its way out the door.
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