THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Rivalry second to none even if teams aren't

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / July 3, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - When the New York writer arrived here Tuesday, he could be found not only in the visitors' clubhouse at Tropicana Field. He also wandered over to the Rays' side. After all, Tampa Bay faces the Yankees after Boston does. And it's the Rays who sit atop the American League East.

It's a sign of the times. The first-place team in this series inhabits the home clubhouse for a change, marking perhaps a difference when the Red Sox arrive in the Bronx today. Because the weekend series stands as a battle for second place.

"The two best teams in baseball are playing against each other," David Ortiz said, referring not to the Sox-Rays tussle, but to the series that begins tonight at Yankee Stadium. "It don't matter."

Less than two weeks from the All-Star Game, there is the same sense of challenge, expectation, and inevitability. There is certainly a sense that every game between these teams counts, but there are also subtle differences.

Yet amid all the compliments being thrown the way of the Rays, Ortiz didn't seem quite as convinced. They might have the best record in baseball, but Ortiz has been in too many pennant drives, too many races with the Yankees, to work up a sweat over the Rays' hot start.

"They know how to figure it out, we know how to figure it out," Ortiz said of the Sox and Yankees. "Time will tell. It's a long season. These kids across the street [the Rays], they're playing good, though. I'm not going to take that away from them. Things happen. Sometimes the experience shows up and takes over. I'm not saying they will drop. But if you go by the numbers, that's normally what happens in baseball. It's always the guys with more experience that are used to being in the same spot at the end of the year [that] take over.

"It will be good watching these kids right there come through and watching them in the playoffs. It will be good for baseball, it will be good for people to believe it doesn't matter how much money you pay, how big is your payroll. There's teams that still have a chance to be in the playoffs, make it different. But at the same time, you know how it is."

Meaning, he thinks he knows who will be standing at the end. And it doesn't include Tampa Bay.

But even the Rays can't take offense. Not yet anyway, with so much of the season yet to play.

"He's right. History backs him up," closer Troy Percival said after last night's 7-6 win over the Red Sox. "But it's not going to happen to us. If we don't win this thing, it's not going to be because we fall. They will have to come and take it from us. There's a difference.

"I will never downgrade Boston or New York because they've done it, they've been there, they've proven they know how to get it done. And that's what we have to do. We have to prove we can get it done."

Some things, though, never change. Owner Hank Steinbrenner yesterday voiced his opinion on the state of his team, which came into last night's game against Texas with six fewer wins and four more losses than the Red Sox. Apparently, the Yankees are not hitting as well as he would like. Still, given the Sox' recent slump at the plate, they're not the only ones. And, the Yankees had lost three in a row.

"We've got to start hitting," Steinbrenner told the Associated Press. "It's getting ridiculous. They've got to start waking up. They've shown in flashes what they can still do.

"Even when I was worried about the pitching earlier - starting pitching is the most important thing of all - but [general manager] Brian [Cashman] would keep telling me, 'Yes, but I worried about the hitting.' That was Brian's biggest concern even as we were reconstructing the pitching. We all know they're better than that. I don't know. Maybe a little less outside distractions and a little more concentrating and they'll start hitting better. I thought they would go on a consistent tear, and it hasn't happened yet."

As if on cue, the Yankees responded by burying the Rangers, 18-7, last night.

Still, this will be a series without first place at stake.

"We're going to get the best of them," said Sox manager Terry Francona of the Bombers. "Hopefully, they'll get the best of us. Tampa Bay's made this a little more difficult on a lot of teams."

None more so than the ones in Boston and New York.

"Every year it's the same thing," said the injured Ortiz, who appeared downcast at the thought that he would miss a Yankees series. "Last year we were up by about 10 games [in] the first half, and next thing you know, you've got the Yankees right behind you at the end of the season. Everybody knows that they have problems with their pitching, but I don't know. They know how to figure it out. I keep on saying that, every year. They know how to figure things out. How? I don't know. 'Cause it seems like they're not even going to be close and next thing you know, they're right there. So, it's a matter of time."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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