The Devil is in the details

Originally Published: June 23, 2004
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

And coming up next on The Lou Piniella Traveling Medicine Show: Negotiating the terms of a soft landing.

Not that there is an actual downside to the kind of winning streak the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have recently experienced. There is no downside, at least not in the real world.

The Rays have lifted themselves out of the typical Tampaville swoon of June (or April or May, depending) and into a place of competitive possibilities that are not normally muttered in the same breath as any mention of T.B. Or, as Rays outfielder Carl Crawford actually said the other day, in a quote that was actually printed in reputable newspapers, "It's fun to be a Devil Ray right now."

Lou Piniella
Lou Piniella has the Devil Rays fired up and on the verge of .500.
Look, Ma, no downside.

Unless, of course, you are Lou Piniella.

If you're Piniella, you are a manager, and thus lawfully contracted to worry when there appears to be no cause for worry. And in the case of the mostly younger, mostly new-to-winning Rays, Piniella's next great challenge is to manage his team back down to earth -- because losing, in baseball, is inevitable. It's how the losing is received that matters.

Everything about Tampa Bay right now feels worthy of a mention. The team's record since May 20 is 23-7, best in baseball, even after Wednesday's loss to Toronto. The Devil Rays had won 12 straight games prior to losing, the best winning streak in the American League since Oakland reeled off 20 in a row in 2002. You'd call it a resurrection if the Rays had ever been any good.

And for those keeping score, it turns out Lou Piniella can manage a little. The quick temptation when Piniella took over in Tampa Bay was to assume that there was no manager in the world capable of overcoming the obstacles there, and it's always possible that such will ultimately prove to be the case; but from 63-99 last season to the brink of .500 in late June is about as dramatic a transformation as any baseball team has a right to hope -- from anybody, under any circumstances.

What's next? Well, Phase Three, naturally. And Phase Three involves Piniella's players dealing with the hangover of a great winning streak, of getting past today's hype and finding their way safely to tomorrow's game. It may be one of the classic challenges to a manager, helping a young team understand that it was good enough to win all those games, not lucky enough or karma'd up enough or any of that rot.

And it won't be entirely smooth. No maturation process ever is. You can expect to see the "old" Rays rear their heads a few times between today and the end of the season, for the simple reason that big ships tend to need big space in order to complete a turn. Well, that and the whole A.L. East thing. Nobody said getting better was easy.

The attention is on Tampa right now, and Sweet Lou ain't exactly shying from it. He taped segments this week with ESPN's Dan Patrick and with a Fox sports show, and Piniella knows that, in general, the attention is good for a franchise whose nickname for several years was mistakenly thought to be Sucks.

Still, Piniella told reporters in Toronto, "We've been rather anonymous, with very little disturbances. It's probably better for us to stay that way ... We'd like to sneak into these different towns and just play our game."

Not gonna happen now -- and that's not entirely a bad thing. The next step along the growth timeline is for Tampa to deal with its own improvement.

About that, Piniella knows a thing or two. His first team in Seattle went 82-80 in 1993; two years later he had the AL West's divisional champ. In Piniella's final three seasons in the Pacific Northwest, the Mariners won 91, 116 and 93 games, respectively.

They don't need to print playoff tickets in Tampa to be certain they got the right guy, with enough left in the tank as a manager, for that moribund franchise. People are checking in these days to see how the Devil Rays did. As benchmarks go, it'll certainly do.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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