ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) Pennant fever is alive in the oddest of places.
Ticket lines are longer, television ratings are rising and the young, budget-minded Tampa Bay Rays are in first place in the AL East, looking down on the big-spending Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
"First-place Rays halfway to history," read one newspaper headline. Three days later, the surprise owners of baseball's best record awakened to "Lowering The Broom," "How Sweep It Is."
"It's a really good feeling," manager Joe Maddon said after Wednesday night's 7-6 victory over Boston gave the Rays (52-32) their second home sweep of the Red Sox and a 3 1/2-game lead in the division. "We've worked to get to this point, to earn that right to have that feeling, so now we have to maintain it."
The Rays open a series at Tropicana Field on Friday night against Kansas City, hoping to build on what has created this stunning turnaround: consistent pitching, improved defense and a knack for producing just enough offense.
This team has not only escaped the cellar and climbed into playoff contention. It is proving it can compete with baseball's elite.
By rallying from a three-run, seventh-inning deficit to hand the Red Sox their fifth straight defeat, the Rays became the first team to sweep two series of three or more games from Boston in the same season since the Yankees in 2001.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Tampa Bay is the first team other than New York or Boston to lead the AL East this late in a season since 2000, when Toronto led on July 6 before finishing third.
"I'd be surprised if they're not in the hunt the whole way," Boston's Mike Lowell said, noting the Rays are getting solid pitching from a young rotation headed by Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza.
"Not to take away from their offense, but without pitching, you can't slug every night," Lowell added. "Their pitching keeps them in games."
And when the score is close, the Rays feel they will find a way to win.
They are 16-10 in one-run games. And, it's not as if they've been feasting on bad teams while becoming the second club in major league history to have the best record in the majors this deep into a season after finishing with the worst mark the previous year.
Of Tampa Bay's first 84 games, 56 were against teams with winning records at the time, and 69 have been against teams currently above .500. Among the club's seven sweeps, six have come at home, with the AL West-leading Angels and NL Central-leading Cubs among the victims.
"There's a long way to go," center fielder B.J. Upton said.
Yes, but the Rays, who have withstood injuries and suspensions, are confident they can stay in the race.
During a recent visit to Tropicana Field, principal owner Stuart Sternberg said he is open to the prospect of making moves before the trade deadline to bolster the roster.
"It's got to be something that's right. We're still long-term greedy, which is a motto from one of my old businesses, and what that means is that you can't completely mortgage your future," Sternberg said. "But by the same token, you don't necessarily get a lot of opportunities to take a real good cut at a fat pitch, so to speak."
The Rays began the season with an opening-day payroll of $43.8 million, second lowest in the majors.
Although attendance has lagged much of the year, it is picking up with the team in contention. The three-game set against Boston drew 101,305, the highest figure for a weekday series since the club's inaugural season in 1998. Wednesday's sellout of 36,048 was the fourth at Tropicana Field this year.
After averaging 17,671 for the first 32 home dates, the team has drawn 28,820 a game over the last 14. Figures are up 38.5 percent overall, the largest increase in the majors.
On the field, the Rays have thrived despite not having an obvious pick for the All-Star game.
Kazmir and relievers J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler have had strong first halfs. Catcher Dioner Navarro merits consideration and rookie third baseman Evan Longoria has had a major impact since being promoted from the minors.
Longoria drove in three runs Wednesday night, joining Fred Lynn (1975) and Devon White (1987) as the only rookies in the past 50 years to have at least 15 homers, 20 doubles and 50 RBIs by the All-Star break.
He made a clutch defensive play to help seal the middle game of the series, then delivered a two-run double during the six-run seventh that helped the Rays overcome a three-run deficit in the finale.
"We felt like we were going to win that game somehow. Why? Just because we've got that feeling about us right now. We believe," Maddon said.
"Our guys are playing with a very high level of ability and emotion. When you get to that level, when you really start trusting and believing ... then you can do things like we did tonight."
Boston's David Ortiz thinks it would be good for baseball if the Rays, 6-0 against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field vs. 0-6 at Fenway Park, can remain in contention for the rest of the summer.
At the same time, the slugger believes the experience of the Red Sox and Yankees eventually will prevail.
"There's a lot of games left. One way or another, (the Yankees) know how to figure it out. We know how to figure it out," Ortiz said.
"I'm not saying that they will drop, but if you go by the numbers, that's normally what happens. The guys with more experience at the end of the year take over."