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Tampa’s missing a great show

Rays making the most of their few resources

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 16, 2011

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - There has to be great respect for this Tampa Bay franchise amid issues that may never be resolved.

The Rays have no business being nine games over .500, five games off the American League East lead, but they are. It’s a shame that more fans don’t come here.

There’s a good product on the field for good value, yet the Rays continue to struggle with attendance. Their ability to sustain a franchise continues to be questioned, even by commissioner Bud Selig.

The Rays hope realignment gets them out of the AL East and away from the Yankees and Red Sox. After all, the Rays’ payroll is $41 million, about one-fifth of the Yankees ($201 million) and one-fourth of the Red Sox ($161 million). Yet they hang in with both baseball monsters and last night they smacked the Red Sox around, 9-6.

“I must admit to you - and I’ve said this before and I’ll say it to you here today - it’s a terrific organization, very competitive, more competitive even this year than people thought they would be,’’ Selig told the St. Petersburg Times before Tuesday’s All-Star Game. “And of course the first thing I do every day is look at the 15 attendances to see how we’re doing, and I agree with [Rays principal owner] Stu Sternberg: You have to be concerned. He has to be.

“If you want to put a competitive club on the field, there has to be revenue to support it. And they’ve done a brilliant job, but this year [attendance] has surprised me.’’

The Rays drew 25,729 last night, which was about 6,500 more than their AL-worst team average - and that is down 14 percent from this point last season. The Rays have lost some of their star power with Carl Crawford gone to the Red Sox, Carlos Pena and Matt Garza gone to the Cubs, and their entire bullpen, well, gone.

The Rays signed Johnny Damon, who has been terrific, and wasted time and money on Manny Ramirez, who retired after again testing positive for PEDs.

Sternberg and Rays management continue to hold on to the hope that a ballpark located in the right place would make it a sustainable market. But there’s no progress on that. There are no plans for a ballpark in Tampa, St. Petersburg, or anywhere.

And so the Rays keep kicking around.

They don’t let their small-market problems get them down, or keep them from making sound baseball decisions.

They still have a fairly rich farm system. They have maintained a team that’s based on pitching, defense, and pure spunk.

They have a creative manager in Joe Maddon, who seems to know how to maximize a minimal roster. Damon has been a leader. They have a find in Casey Kotchman, who homered last night. The one-time Red Sox (39 games in 2009) is hitting .339, which would rank as third in the majors if he were not 10 plate appearances short of qualifying for the batting title.

Matt Joyce was an All-Star. Evan Longoria hasn’t been having a Longoria-type year, beset with injuries all season.

Somehow they hang in.

“I don’t believe what we can do here sometimes,’’ senior adviser Don Zimmer said. “These guys play the game right. They play hard. They give it everything they have on the field and they win more than they lose. They’re not intimidated by anything or nobody. Some of these guys have been in big games and they’re not afraid of being in the same division as Boston and New York, because they’ve beaten them before.

“It’s fun to watch and you gain a real appreciation for them.’’

The Rays’ rebuilt bullpen has been susceptible to blowing up, but they are 12-8 with 19 saves and a 3.62 ERA, while the starters are 38-33 with a 3.57 ERA.

Everyone knows the Rays need bullpen help and another impact bat. But the more you talk to people around the team, the more you realize that may not happen because the money just isn’t there to do it.

With this team, the little things are important. That’s why Maddon held a team meeting before the series to emphasize all of the cliché things, like taking it one game at a time even though they have the Sox in for three followed by four with the Yankees.

Maddon also emphasized quality two-strike at-bats and working the counts.

It all seemed to hit home as the Rays had their biggest offensive outburst at the Trop this season.

Maddon loved the Ben Zobrist grand slam in the second inning, but he loved the Zobrist walk with the bases loaded off Alfredo Aceves in the third even more, as well as B.J. Upton’s single up the middle in the first inning.

He loved J.P. Howell’s strikeout of David Ortiz in the eighth with one in, one on, and one out in a 9-6 game. Maddon called it the biggest out of the game, because it allowed closer Kyle Farnsworth to come in needing only four outs for the save.

“If you look too big, you set yourself up for bad moments,’’ Maddon said.

For what this team manages to pull off year after year, and how well it battles - and sometimes beats - the giants of baseball, it’s a shame it is not appreciated fully here.

And it may never be.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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