If sweeping the Yankees served as powerful opening remarks for the 2012 campaign, the Tampa Bay Rays now have the opportunity to make a real statement.
Theyll get that chance on a challenging 10-day, three-city road trip starting Tuesday in Detroit against the powerhouse Tigers.
After three afternoon contests at Comerica Park, the Rays head to Boston to visit the arch-rival Red Sox for four more day games then travel to Toronto to take on the often-explosive Blue Jays in three night showdowns.
Were about to learn a lot more about the team that started the season with an unexpected TKO of the highly touted Yankees.
Thats not to take anything away from the Rays achievement in beating New York 7-6, 8-6 and 3-0 before two jubilant Trop sellouts and the near-capacity crowd Sunday afternoon that witnessed Jeremy Hellicksons gem. But now comes a truly daunting test.
The good news for Tampa Bay is that its listless spring-training offense came alive over the opening weekend with a team batting average of .302. Other than a rough Friday night start by James Shields and the Saturday relief outing by Josh Lueke, the pitching from the standout rotation and bullpen was outstanding. The signature defense was mostly excellent, particularly in a handful of well-timed shifts that foiled potential Yankee rallies.
And by now, the whole country has heard about the triumphant return of first baseman Carlos Pena, who followed his game-winning Opening Day heroics with a hot bat throughout the series.
The Rays are on a roll, with eight straight wins and counting (including a club-record seven in a row against New York). Despite injuries to starting center fielder B.J. Upton, de facto closer Kyle Farnsworth and key bench player Sam Fuld, theyre playing with the energy and emotion that fueled their landmark run of last September.
That certainly makes the impending road swing a little less ominous than, say, if theyd have dropped two of three to New York. The Rays are a team that feeds on the sense of self-belief instilled in them by manager Joe Maddon. And the confidence they built from their weekend success should serve them well as they head out of town and into the lions den, or in this case the Tigers lair.
Theyll need all the help they can get, especially if the tight hamstring that knocked free agent slugger Luke Scott out of the game early Sunday keeps him out of action this week or longer. Scott made his presence felt with a 3-for-4 outing at the plate Saturday, including a double and three RBI that made the difference in the two-run victory. Scotts absence leaves a formidable hole. His stand-in, Durham call-up Steve Vogt, hasnt yet found his groove and Elliot Johnson remains a sub-Mendoza Line hitter.
The reality is that the next 16 road games and 24 of the first 27 will serve as a barometer for Tampa Bay. All of them come against teams that were .500 or better last year. This month alone, they will face each of the ALs top five offenses from 2011: the Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers, Tigers and Jays.
The first task takes place Tuesday at 1:05 p.m. when hotshot rookie Matt Moore takes on Rick Porcello. Moore, 22, took the Rays by storm after his Sept. 12 call-up last year. In two starts including his postseason win over the Rangers and first major league start on Sept. 22 in New York against the Yankees he has pitched a combined 12 scoreless innings and allowed just six hits. Porcello is coming off his second 14-9 showing in the past three seasons, along with a 4.75 ERA.
The Tigers arent likely to make it easy on the Rays, or any team, for that matter. Theyve also started 3-0, disposing of the Red Sox 3-2, 10-0 and 13-12 in a wild, come-from-behind win in the bottom of the 11th Sunday on Alex Avilas two-run homer. Avila and prize free-agent acquisition Prince Fielder each have two homers so far, behind the three from Miguel Cabrera (whose three-run blast in the bottom of the ninth tied the game 10-10 Sunday).
Detroit is hitting .345 as a team, paced by leadoff man Austin Jacksons .571 (8 for 14) clip. The pitching staff features the 2011 AL Cy Young Award-winner Justin Verlander, who allowed two hits in eight innings against Boston last week. Verlander will face Rays ace James Shields on Wednesday, with each looking for their first win of the season. The series closes out Thursday with Jeff Niemann taking the mound for Tampa Bay and left-hander Drew Smyly going for the Tigers.
Who knows what shape the reeling Red Sox will be in by the time the Rays hit town. Picking up their losing ways where they left off last September, they play their next three games in Toronto. The Jays beat Boston in three of four at home last September to contribute to the clubs epic collapse. And now new manager Bobby Valentine and his struggling Sox face a team that enjoyed baseballs best mark in spring training at 24-7 and took two of three from Cleveland to start the season.
The focus for the Rays, meanwhile, is to stay in the moment.
We try not to get too far ahead of ourselves, Pena said following Sundays win. One thing we must look at is that we play game by game.
As remarkably well as the first three went, the next 10 could make a strong statement indeed.