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Tampa's improvement raising level of rivalry

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 5, 2008

It used to be the mercury of a series against the Tampa Bay Rays had little or no movement on the Red Sox Nation thermometer. The best thing about such a series was that it gave Red Sox fans an excuse to fly to Florida and take in a game at Tropicana Field, where it was easy to get tickets. Or when the Rays came to Boston, it was a chance for season ticket-holders to sell their seats to folks who normally couldn't get to a game otherwise.

Now the temperature is rising.

The better Tampa Bay gets, a Sox-Rays rivalry could be developing.

Oh, there were those beanball dust-ups a few years back when Lou Piniella managed the Rays, piquing curiosity in the series, but they came and went. This time there appears to be more sustainability, with the Rays considered one of the most talented organizations in baseball. Who knows how far off the ground it will get, but for now there's at least some feeling that this could be an American League East showdown for many years.

Last night in a 5-1 win that vaulted the Sox over Tampa Bay and into first place, emotions flared again. The Rays accused Coco Crisp of trying to hurt second baseman Akinori Iwamura with a slide on an unsuccessful steal in the eighth inning. Crisp claimed he had injured his thumb on what he called a "shady" play by shortstop Jason Bartlett, who blocked the bag with his knee when Crisp stole second in the sixth.

"I was not pleased with the slide," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who jawed from the mound at Crisp in the Sox dugout during a pitching change later in the inning. "There was something that happened earlier that provoked him, and you can ask him about it. But I totally felt it was an intent to hurt our middle infielder, and that's what I was upset with.

"I was kind of looking into their dugout until I found him. It was a long-distance exchange. There's no place for that when you're intentionally trying to hurt somebody."

Crisp had a different perspective.

"It could get somebody injured," he said of Bartlett's blocking technique.

Asked if he were trying to injure Iwamura, Crisp said, "If I was trying to injure him, I wouldn't have slid at all."

Maddon said he confronted Crisp because "it's standing up for your team and your players and what's right. There's right and wrong, and that was wrong. It's very simple to me. It doesn't seem very complicated. If there was intent, we said what we had to say. I'm a firm believer in the players taking care of their own business."

Asked if he felt Crisp was trying to hurt him, Iwamura said, "What do you think? I'm not hurt at all, but to ask that kind of question, what do you think about that? I'm not a person to judge on that play, and that's all I can say."

Even with all that, the Rays are gaining the respect of the Red Sox and all of baseball. But as Maddon pointed out after his team lost its fifth straight game at Fenway Park, "It's too early to get concerned, but we haven't done well here. To end up in first place, we have to play better here."

The Rays have been tested throughout the season. Tested when they began the year without Scott Kazmir, then lost Carl Crawford for a stretch. Tested when they lost Troy Percival, who had saved 14 games. Yesterday provided another test - the loss of cleanup hitter Carlos Peña, who suffered a cracked left index finger when he was hit with a Justin Masterson pitch Tuesday night. So now the Rays are without their closer and their leading power hitter.

"When something negative happens, something positive always results. I really believe that," said Maddon. "When we get people back, that's going to benefit us down the line. Players are getting valuable experience. Their confidence is growing."

That confidence really began for Maddon last August when the Rays acquired reliever Dan Wheeler. It was the first sign the bullpen was finally turning the corner to respectability. Wheeler joined Al Reyes, and in the offseason, the Rays signed Percival. Maddon noticed an immediate difference in the clubhouse. He saw Percival bring leadership that hadn't been evident for some time.

The Rays added veterans like Eric Hinske and Cliff Floyd to young veterans like Crawford, Iwamura, Kazmir, and James Shields. They strengthened their pitching by trading former No. 1 pick Delmon Young to the Twins for Matt Garza. Suddenly, the Rays had pitching. Very good, young pitching.

"I'm so excited about what's to come," said Peña, the Haverhill and Northeastern product. "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."

There's still not that great buzz with the Rays in town. It may be that Red Sox Nation still isn't sold on the upstart team from Florida. Since the Rays' inception in 1998, the Sox have beaten them 116 times and lost only 61. They're 66-23 against the Rays at Fenway. Given that history, maybe the fans don't take them seriously yet.

It's a rivalry still in its infant stages. It's one that could blossom into a hot and heavy matchup if the current scenario of the teams being in first and second places continues.

It's going to be Josh Beckett vs. Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka vs. Shields and Jon Lester vs. Edwin Jackson and Tim Wakefield vs. Garza. You're going to watch the superb play of Crawford (if he re-signs) and Peña's power and Evan Longoria's emergence as one of the game's best players. You'll watch the battle of young, exciting center fielders, B.J. Upton vs. Jacoby Ellsbury. By the trading deadline, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Rays finally start to compete for players with the big boys, because they are becoming one of the big boys.

At least now when you mention the Rays, you think it's a game you should watch. You think now if you're a season ticket-holder, that's a game you shouldn't give away.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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