By Steve Silverman
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Here's one of the main reasons that the Yankees have to take the Tampa Bay Rays seriously -- Joe Maddon.
While Yankees manager Joe Girardi was busy yelling at a Chicago fan after the White Sox polished off a three-game sweep at U.S. Cellular Field, the Rays continue to play steady baseball and trim games off a once-formidable 10-game lead.
The Rays, who have played well since getting third baseman Evan Longoria back from the disabled list, are only three games behind New York. Both teams have 38 games left to play on the schedule.
Longoria has not yet started to surge in the batter's box, which is what he did last year down the stretch when the Rays caught and passed the Red Sox for the American League Wild Card berth.
If Longoria starts pounding the ball, the Cheshire cat smile on Maddon will turn into a full-fledged grin.
Just because the Rays caught the Red Sox last season doesn't mean that they will catch the Yankees this year, but Maddon has a way of getting his players to believe in themselves and not care about payrolls, talent level or perception.
He is doing what managers are supposed to do.
That doesn't mean that Girardi isn't doing the same thing, but his little explosion towards a mouthy fan shows that he is not impervious to pressure. When you are the manager of the Yankees, you will always find yourself being hunted by one team or another. However, when a lead has been pared down to three games, that's when teams feel pressure.
Players like Derek Jeter may not admit it, but baseball players always follow the standings and know just where they stand compared to the competition. When a pennant race changes direction like it appears to have done in the last few weeks, the noose begins to tighten around the neck. All players feel it.
It may be even tougher when you are playing the role of the heavy, like the Yankees do to basically everyone outside of the Bronx.
Nothing would make the baseball world happier than to see the scrappy, underpaid Rays run down the big, bad Yankees.
Maddon knows how to play up that aspect and keep his team surging. It helps when you have consistently dominating starting pitching, and that's just what the Rays have. Their best pitcher is David Price, who has been doing it all season long and has put together a 16-4 record with a 2.28 ERA in 167 innings.
When Maddon can follow Price with James Shields, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson, it becomes obvious that the Rays are a lot more than just a nice, hard-trying little team trying to chase down the overpowering Yankees.
That's a dominant pitching staff, and the Rays have the ability to keep the heat turned up the rest of the season.
Do they have enough offense to cause damage if the starting pitchers can't do it on an every-night basis?
Not if Longoria doesn't start to hit like he did last year. After getting nearly 50 at bats as a designated hitter and batting about .250, Maddon put Longoria back at third base. Longoria may not be fully confident about his torn hamstring until he can play five or six games in a row at third base without incident.
If he does not suffer any further damage while playing the field or running the bases, he's the kind of player who can carry his team.
The Rays will find out that the Yankees are not the Red Sox. It's one thing to push hard and possibly gain a Wild Card spot; it's quite another to run down the Yankees and pick off first place in the AL East.
There may be a couple of scares along the way, but it would be difficult to see the Yankees coughing up their lead and letting the Rays take the division.
Be honest here, Yankees fans. How nervous are you about the Rays as the Bombers' AL East lead continues to dwindle? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below...
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