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Rays' road should get easier

Rays' road should get easier
Toughest part of schedule looks to be behind them.

By Marc Lancaster

BOSTON - Strength of schedule is a term you don't hear much in Baseball, but it's probably fair to say it has had an impact on the Rays' disappointing sub-.500 start to this season.

The first month or so of the 2009 campaign has seen Tampa Bay play mostly on the road and against high-quality opposition more often than not, making for a difficult opening stretch. Everything evens out over the course of a Baseball season, though, and the Rays are about to hit a bit of soft underbelly in their schedule - an opportunity to make up some of the ground they have lost to this point.

The Rays will play their 33rd game of the season tonight, leaving them one-fifth of the way through the regular-season slate. Twenty of those games have been on the road, and 19 have come against teams that made the playoffs last year (the Red Sox and White Sox) or spent so much money they should have (Yankees). Throw in three games at Minnesota, which lost a one-game playoff to the White Sox to end last season, and there haven't been many breaks.

That facet of what has transpired to this point was one of the factors highlighted by principal owner Stuart Sternberg this week as he expressed his optimism that the Rays would get back on the right track soon.

"Clearly, this was going to be the toughest stretch of the schedule, the first five weeks," Sternberg said. "And not to take any teams lightly at all, but when you take a look at the teams we have to play after we get done with this road trip for the next couple of months, relative to the ones we had to play the first month or two and [a lot of games] on the road and whatnot, it won't be as trying, and I think that'll be helpful for us."

After taking their only day off in May on Monday, the Rays will wrap up the trip with two games at last-place Baltimore. Between those games and a tough week in early June that will see the Rays play four more at Yankee Stadium and return home for three against the Angels, there should be wins to be had.

The Rays' next 10 games after today will be against the teams currently holding down last place in each American League division - the Orioles, Indians and A's. After a trip to Miami for their first interleague series of the year against the surprising Marlins, the Rays get four more against the Indians at Cleveland and three at home against the Twins before hosting another surprise team, the Royals.

The emergence of Florida and Kansas City this season is the latest example that nothing can be taken for granted based on a team's pedigree - as if the Rays need to be reminded of that. But for a Tampa Bay group that aspires to make the playoffs out of the AL East, these are games that need to be won.

In fact, winning these types of games has kept Toronto atop the division for most of the season's first month. The Blue Jays have battled the Dodgers for the best record in Baseball throughout April and the first week or so of May - an achievement few predicted.

But take a look at the teams the Blue Jays have played. Their schedule to this point has consisted almost entirely of games against the Central and West. Toronto has yet to play a game against the Rays , Red Sox or Yankees, though that will change soon with New York and Boston providing the opposition in three of the Jays' next six series.

It will be interesting to see if the next few weeks (which also include a four-game set with the White Sox) see Toronto fall back to earth a bit. If so, you have to look at the schedule as one of the reasons.

Rays manager Joe Maddon is a longtime critic of MLB's unbalanced schedules, which force teams in five-team divisions to face intradivision foes in nearly half their games each season. He would rather see the games spread more evenly against all league competition, with interleague play eliminated.

Maddon has made it a point to embrace rather than complain about his team being forced to face the big-money Yankees and Red Sox upwards of 35 times each year, but there's no getting around the uphill battle the Rays , Orioles and Blue Jays faced because of where they have been placed.

And at least the Rays can take solace in having absorbed much of that punishment already in 2009, with the next stretch of concentrated division games not set to come until September.

In the meantime, they shouldn't have any excuses for not making some headway.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Photo: Manager Joe Maddon, center, embraces the challenge of playing in the AL East, but he would like to see a more balanced schedule.

Copyright ? 2009, The Tampa Tribune and may not be republished without permission. E-mail

Author:Fox Sports
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Added: May 13, 2009

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