James Shields led the starting rotation with one solid outing after another to take his pitching to another level from what Rays fans saw in the right-hander's rookie season last year. Scott Kazmir did not perform to the high standard he established in the first half of 2006, but he has come back strong from the sore left shoulder that sidelined him for most of the second half last season, and it's reasonable to expect big things from him in the second half of this season.
The Rays had some hard luck with key injuries to Akinori Iwamura, Rocco Baldelli and B.J. Upton, but the hard luck was countered by the emergence of several solid players, including shortstop Brendan Harris, first baseman Carlos Pena and the return of Al Reyes, who came back from his second Tommy John surgery to become a shutdown closer for the team.
Though the Rays' first-half record wasn't much different than year's past, the way they arrived at that record is different: With a youthful team that brings enthusiasm to the ballpark every night and a team the fans can enjoy watching.
Club MVP: What Shields has done on the mound has been remarkable. Yes, he has struggled with more than his share of home run balls, but his stuff has been electric and his record could be far better without several bullpen collapses on nights he's pitched.
Call him 'Ace': Shields has pitched well and has been a workhorse in getting the team to the seventh inning and beyond in most of his starts.
Greatest strength: Versatility. The team can plug any number of players into any number of positions, which gives manager Joe Maddon a great deal of flexibility with his lineup.
Biggest problem: Bullpen. In addition to not pitching well, the bullpen has been pressed to pitch more than any bullpen should due to the lack of lengthy starts by the team's starters.
Biggest surprise: Harris was acquired in a trade with the Reds to back up Ben Zobrist. He beat out Zobrist for the job and has thrived.
Team needs: Besides the healthy return of key disabled players, the Rays need to add productive contributors in the bullpen. They also need a solid everyday catcher.
Akinori Iwamura -- Was on the disabled list for 29 days with a right oblique strain, but came back healthy and strong.
Rocco Baldelli -- Has been out since May 16 with a left hamstring strain; he could return in July.
Josh Paul -- Has been out since May 20 with a left elbow strain; he could return by late July, early August.
B.J. Upton -- Went on the DL June 14 with a left quadriceps strain, is expected to be back to full speed by the start of the second half.
Shawn Riggans -- Has been off and on the DL with right elbow tendinitis; should be back later in July.
He said it: "As we pitch better as a group, we're going to be able to beat these teams [in the American League East]. We're starting to find some form in the bullpen, that's going to make a difference. Offensively, you look at the lineup we're posting. ... [On a lot of nights] that lineup rivals any lineup in the American League." -- Maddon.
Mark your calendar: July 12-15 vs. New York; July 27-29 vs. Boston; Sept. 3-5 vs. Baltimore.
Fearless second-half prediction: The Rays will not finish in last place in the American League East.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.