Rounding Third: Here come the Rays

You knew it was just a matter of time before the Tampa Bay Rays made their move in the American League.

But unlike last year when they needed one of the most epic September collapses of all time to reach the playoffs, the Rays have gone to the whip in August and people are starting to take notice.

The Rays won their seventh straight game on Monday in Seattle behind yet another strong starting pitching performance, as Alex Cobb tossed seven solid innings in the team's 4-1 win.

"He's gone exactly seven innings each of his last four starts between 90 and 100 pitches. You could send him back out there right there, but I'm thinking, this guy's on such a nice run doing that, why mess with it," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

The team that was 10 1/2 games back of the American League East-leading New York Yankees back on July 18 has managed to slice that lead more than in half and is now five games back in the division, while sitting atop the wild card standings along with the Baltimore Orioles.

The key behind the recent turn around? Well, in a word, pitching.

Since the All-Star break, Tampa's team ERA is a major league best 2.29 and its starters are 11-1 with a 1.72 ERA with 88 strikeouts in its last 15 games.

Left-hander David Price gets most of the credit and rightfully so, as he leads all AL pitchers with 15 wins and is on the short list of Cy Young candidates. But, 23-year-old southpaw Matt Moore has quietly gone 8-2 with a 2.95 ERA since June 3.

"I'm very pleased with where I've come since the beginning of the season, from not really putting together too many quality starts to now," Moore said. "I'm getting a little more hungry for the eighth and ninth inning, every night trying to see what those are like."

As good as the starting pitching has been, though, the most important part of the Rays' staff might be closer Fernando Rodney, who has seemingly come out of nowhere to save 37 games and pitch to a 0.82 ERA.

It's not just the pitching, either. The Rays' offense has come to life and has collected double-digit hits in five straight, something the team had not done since Aug. 28-Sept. 2, 2008.

"They say (offense is) contagious, man," outfielder B.J. Upton said. "And that's the way it seems to be right now. We're swinging the bats well. And it's kind of something we've been waiting on all year. So hopefully we can do something the last two months."

It's not lost on anyone either that the Rays' recent offensive turnaround has coincided with the return of superstar Evan Longoria, who missed more than three months with a hamstring tear.

Tampa has scored 41 runs on 75 hits over the course of its winning streak. It had only managed to cross the plate 25 times in the 10 games prior to Longoria's return, while hitting a mere .199.

Coincidence? I think not.

"I think you just look at what we've been doing since he's been back," Upton said. "Anytime you can put a guy like him into the middle of your lineup, it's hard to say that it doesn't change the complexion of it."

Can Tampa make the Yankees sweat? They already are. In case you haven't noticed the Yanks' rotation right now consists of Hiroki Kuroda, Freddy Garcia, David Phelps, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova.

The deficit is certainly nothing the Rays fear considering they were nine games back of a playoff spot as late as Sept. 2 of last season, before one of the more memorable comebacks in baseball history.

Point is, if the Rays are going to do some damage, the time is now.