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Maddon, Tampa Bay taking it one game at a time

By following the gospel of their manager, the Rays became the hottest team in baseball @HalBodley

ST. PETERSBURG -- In a sense, it's the gospel according to Joe Maddon. After filling out the Rays' lineup card each day, Maddon jots a little note atop the batting order. During the game, he keeps the card handy, and he often chews on the words he's written.

The other night it was, "Be Present."

That gospel is take care of today and tomorrow will take care of itself.

At times, Maddon's managerial tactics are unorthodox, if not bizarre. Like the time in June when Tampa Bay was trying to get its act together and Maddon had penguins walking around the clubhouse. Or another afternoon when he invited a rock band to serenade his dressing athletes.

It's amazing that in this era of multimillion-dollar players, the Rays buy into Maddon's antics. But not only do they accept the program, it's another reason why the team is so successful.

Most managers prefer their players to put their "game faces" on in a more serene atmosphere. Not Maddon. His forte is keeping his players focused, but loose. Maddon detests losing, yet he insists playing big league baseball should be fun. Enjoy the trip, he says.

Oh, yes, the trips. It's well known around the Majors how Maddon's players dress for road trips. They're called themes. Once, it was pajamas. Another time, it was military garb. And another was the 1950s.

Pinstripes are a no-no.

Speaking of road trips, the Rays just completed a crucial 10-game journey to Toronto, Boston and New York. That trip became Tampa Bay's best American League East trip ever.

The club won eight of the 10 games and returned to Tropicana Field on Tuesday leading the division by a half-game over Boston. But after falling to the D-backs on Wednesday and watching the Red Sox edge the Mariners, the lead has flipped back in Boston's favor. That trip convinced any doubters that pitching-rich Tampa Bay is very capable of winning the AL East.

But it's difficult to choose between the Rays and the Red Sox.

Tampa Bay is a fun team to watch. The Rays complement their talent with enormous energy, and they obviously have fun -- inside the clubhouse and on the field.

On June 23, Tampa Bay was in last place. The Rays turned their season around with a torrid streak, but it was built mostly by beating teams with losing records -- the Astros, Twins and White Sox.

This goes back to "Be Present."

Maddon says he refused to let his players look past the game at hand.

"Against teams that aren't doing so well, you really have to put some hay in the barn at that point," Maddon said. "You've really got to stand your ground [against the best teams in the league], hold your own and hopefully come out on top."

Teams unable to do that don't go to the postseason.

It's unlikely the Rays will be able to continue their blistering pace of July into August, but if they even come close, the division will be within their grasp.

Tampa Bay won 21 of 26 games during July, the best month in the franchise's history. It was all about pitching -- before the Diamondbacks won 7-0 on Wednesday night, the Rays' ERA for July was 2.36, best in the AL since 1933 when the Red Sox had a 2.29 ERA. Lefty David Price led the Majors with five wins, going 5-1 with a 1.68 ERA. He beat Boston twice within a five-day period, the first pitcher to do that in 70 years.

More importantly, Tampa Bay's pitching staff threw seven complete games in its last 20 games, with Price getting three of them.

"August is going to be tough, especially when it comes to the bullpen," said Maddon. "Those complete games could be important down the stretch.

"There's a calmness about them that shows. Overall, they're talented and take a lot of pride in their work."

On Friday night, the Rays begin a weekend series against the defending World Series champion Giants. Chris Archer, the 24-year-old rookie who was 4-0 in July with a 0.73 ERA and allowed just 17 hits in five starts, will face 10-game winner Madison Bumgarner.

To win the division, Tampa Bay has to play better against Boston. The Red Sox, who regained first place with a 15-inning victory over the Mariners on Wednesday night, have won 10 of the 16 games against the Rays this season.

"Even if we were playing .500 with them right now, our record would be substantial," said Maddon. "To win, we have to continue to play our style of game like we did on this past road trip, just keep moving it forward.

"It's going to be like this the rest of the way. Nobody is going to run away with anything. Boston is not going away. Baltimore is going to stay right in it. Ourselves, we're not going anywhere. It's going to be very interesting."

But for the Rays and Maddon, it's all about the present. Tomorrow is another chapter that will take care of itself.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for

Chris Archer, David Price