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Timing is only surprise in Rays' climb to top

Pitching, hitting, managing show that Tampa Bay is almost without weakness @RichardJustice

The Rays have baseball's third-best record and third-lowest payroll. But that is not what this column is about. I just wanted to get that part of the story out of the way right here at the start. Truth be told, that tidbit will not even raise an eyebrow anymore.

The Rays have been doing this stuff for so long that we just assume they are going to do more with less than any other team in the land. If it is possible to take smart, efficient ownership (Stu Sternberg and Matt Silverman) and a brilliant general manager (Andrew Friedman) for granted, we do.

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And there is that guy in the dugout. Joe Maddon is smart, funny, tough and imminently quotable. No manager is better at communicating with his players, setting the right tone in the clubhouse or getting his guys to believe that everything he does is in the best interest of the ballclub. If he is not the best manager on the planet, he is in the discussion.

Honestly, though, we have plowed this ground for years. For instance, when the Rays took a chance on shortstop Yunel Escobar last winter, virtually no one in baseball said, "Those guys have lost their minds."

Instead, baseball people said something like, "Uh oh, watch Escobar go down there and win a Gold Glove."

Escobar is a brilliant defensive shortstop. But neither the Braves nor Blue Jays were exactly sorry to see him go. For all the impressive physical gifts, there were too many instances of immaturity and bad behavior.

But the Rays researched his background and were convinced Maddon could get the absolute best out of Escobar. And that he has done.

Escobar is one of the three best defensive shortstops in baseball and hitting .246. His presence has allowed Ben Zobrist to move between second base and right field, again giving the Rays a terrific defensive team.

See, that is another thing about the Rays. They have a pretty simple philosophy about winning baseball games. They believe everything begins with pitching and defense, that if a team does not give outs away, that if they sweat the small stuff, they will have a chance to win every single night.

One day a couple of Spring Trainings ago, Maddon's introductory talk to his team could pretty much be summed up thusly:

• Run hard to first base.

• Play defense.

If you stop and think about it, really good baseball -- that is, winning baseball -- begins with those two fundamentals.

Friedman also took a flyer on first baseman James Loney, who had hit .249 with the Dodgers and Red Sox in 2012. Friedman liked the fact that Loney was affordable and a very good defensive player. He also believed he would hit. Loney's batting average was .317 when he left Yankee Stadium on Friday night.

With third baseman Evan Longoria healthy and Friedman prying hotshot outfield prospect Wil Myers away from the Royals for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis, the Rays have their best offensive team since 2010.

But that is not what it is about in Tampa Bay. When the Rays win, it is because of their pitching. Everything, absolutely everything, begins there.

And that is what was so disappointing about the way this season started. Their staff ERA was eighth-best in the American League in April, 11th-best in May and eighth-best in June.

On June 28, they lost to Detroit to fall seven games behind the Red Sox in the American League East. They were barely over .500 at 41-39.

That is when everything changed. David Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner, returned from the disabled list and began putting together one of the best stretches of his remarkable career -- 4-1, 1.76 ERA. Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson continued to throw zeroes on the board. Rookie Chris Archer got comfortable, too.

The Rays began to win. And win. And win. Since June 29, they are 20-3. In that time, their starters are 16-3 with a 2.13 ERA. They have gone at least seven innings 11 times and allowed more three runs just once. They are 11-1 at home, 9-2 on the road.

They came out of the All-Star break with a 10-game road trip to Toronto, Boston and New York. So far, they are 6-1 after a 10-6 victory at Yankee Stadium on Friday.

That seven-game deficit is gone, too, and with Friday's victory, the Rays (61-42) passed the Red Sox by a half-game and climbed alone atop the American League East for the first time since June 10, 2012.

To play almost perfect baseball for almost a month is pretty good, even by the Rays' high standards. They hope to get right-hander Alex Cobb back from the DL in the next couple of weeks. When he took a liner off his head June 15, he was 6-2 with a 3.01 ERA.

In other words, they are a team with virtually no weakness. As other teams frantically look for help before Wednesday's non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Rays are expected to stand pat. They are doing a pretty good imitation of baseball's best team just the way they are.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Tampa Bay Rays