Whatever Happened To The Tampa Bay Rays?

Jeffrey McDanielCorrespondent IApril 28, 2009

ST PETERSBURG, FL - JULY 20:  Evan Longoria #3 of the Tampa Rays reacts to a loss against the Toronto Blue Jays on July 20, 2008 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

It was Sunday night, sometime before or after Jacoby Ellsbury stole home on my beloved Yankees, that my buddy Joey mentioned something I predicted in February.

He said, "It's funny that you never hear anything about the Rays anymore!"

I said when pitchers and catchers reported that the Rays were a one-hit wonder. I was ridiculed in much the same way Screech Powers is everyday of his life.

But, was I wrong?

The Rays are 8-12 and in last place in the toughest division in the majors, five-and-a-half games back. They found themselves in almost this exact same spot last season before winning 26 of their next 36 games to finish 33-21 at the end of May.

They were able to put together that very impressive run in large part because they were operating under the radar. In other words, they snuck up on the rest of the division.

The Rays went 20-7 in August before finishing 13-14 in September. That means they finished the season's last two months with an identical record to the first two months, at 33-21.

The glaring difference is that the Rays were on the decline the last few weeks of the season. Tampa ran out of gas and coasted to the finish line, just two games ahead of Boston and eight ahead of an injury-depleted Yankees team.

Fast-forward to this season. The rays are the defending AL pennant winners. They aren't sneaking up on anybody this time.

In fact, they have a bullseye on their backs.

The Rays had an 8-8 record in September against the Yankees and Red Sox, when both teams were in hot pursuit...8-8. Does that sound like a team that was hungry for a title?

One of their two wins against the Yankees came when New York pitched Darrell Rasner. Yeah, Darrell Rasner.

Tampa Bay's September performance last season lends support to the idea that the Rays had a hard time handling the pressure of the spotlight. Both Boston and New York are used to that spotlight.

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And, the Rays wouldn't have even won the pennant if not for home-field advantage.

If the Rays can roll off another hot streak in May, then they have a chance to actually defend their pennant. But this time, things will be a lot tougher.

Boston is scorching right now. Toronto is better, and Baltimore is waiting on Matt Weiters. The Yankees are still the Yankees, only with a better lineup and a tougher pitching staff.

The Rays can't just sneak up and take the division. And they won't, unless they've got another ace in the hole.