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Starters will fuel Rays' quest for division title

Starters will fuel Rays' quest for division title

Starters will fuel Rays' quest for division title
ST. PETERSBURG -- Different faces punctuate the Rays' roster this season, but the bottom line remains the same in the team's clubhouse: pitching, defense and a winning culture.

Those elements should pave the way for a summer-long joyride for Rays fans.

After the team got off to an 0-6 start, many fans wondered if the Rays were headed for a season of mediocrity, or even worse. However, the team righted its ship and turned around its fortunes. By the end of April, Tampa Bay was 15-12 and by May 16, it was in first place in the American League East with a 24-17 record and a three-game lead.

All along, the starting pitching has fueled the parade. David Price, James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson have been particularly effective.

Price, who finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting last season, feels as though he's pitching better than he did last season, which has not been reflected in his wins and losses. The southpaw believes he's just a click away from going on a roll. Once that happens, what follows should be special.

Shields has been the most consistent of the starters. After notching three complete games, including a three-hit shutout at Florida, he is well on his way to another 200-inning season and perhaps headed to his first All-Star Game.

Meanwhile, Hellickson has established himself as a solid AL Rookie of the Year Award candidate with his stellar pitching. His efforts include a complete-game shutout against the Orioles.

There's no reason to believe that Price, Shields and Hellickson won't continue to pitch as they have. Wade Davis' performance appears to be getting closer to last year's form, and Jeff Niemann should return from the 15-day disabled list in the next week, which will give the Rays as solid a starting staff as any team in the AL. Fans can rest assured that every night they show up at Tropicana Field there's a good chance they will see a quality pitching performance -- if not dominating -- from Tampa Bay's starter.

In the early going, the "Legend of Sam Fuld" sustained the team as the mighty-might of a left-fielder played like an All-Star, making diving catches and even leading the league in hitting for a spell. Lately, Matt Joyce has risen to the top, proving to manager Joe Maddon that he can hit left-handed pitching while hanging with Toronto's Jose Bautista among the AL batting leaders.

And Johnny Damon has been everything the Rays thought he would be: a sage veteran presence in the clubhouse complete with a great sense of fun and many of his skills still intact.

Team chemistry has already developed.

"We're a pretty tight-knit group from the get-go," Evan Longoria said, "and I think from pitch No. 1 until the game ends, we're going to keep fighting. I don't want to give you the cliche answers, but it's been fun with this group, trying to win ballgames."

Longoria already has overcome some health problems. He missed 26 games with a left oblique strain and later missed four games with strep throat.

Longoria has always been a streaky hitter, so Rays fans should be able to count on seeing a long, sustained hot streak by their All-Star third baseman.

At this early juncture, Boston looks like the bully of the AL East, but in recent years, the division has not been near as competitive as it is this season. Baltimore and Toronto are both improved, which makes any stop in the AL East a tough win.

"I thought it was going to happen this way in Spring Training," Maddon said. "I honestly did. Everybody's talking about Boston being really good -- and they are. The Yankees, you know how good they are, but I was more concerned about Toronto and Baltimore being much better, because then it really gets more difficult when you have five good teams in one division."

Each team in the AL East plays each other 18 times during the season.

"You have to play each other so often," Maddon said. "That's the part that makes it so difficult -- 18 times whatever to play all of these guys. It's not an easy way to go. With the ascension of the Blue Jays and Baltimore, this division has gotten even better."

There is nothing more exciting than a pennant race that goes down to the wire. The AL East looks staged for an exciting survival-of-the-fittest race right until the end. And the Rays should be right in the thick of it as they try and claim their third division title in four seasons.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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