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 ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.(AP) -No one in the Tampa Bay clubhouse savored the moment more than Carl Crawford.
Climbing into a tie for first place in the AL East indeed was sweet, even if the season was not yet a month old.
Crawford, a two-time All-Star and four-time AL stolen base champion, has played more games for the Rays than any other player in franchise history, experiencing more excruciating lows than he cares to remember.
``It's been one of the best weeks in franchise history. We're going to try to keep it going,'' he said. ``We got that feeling of winning, and we kind of like it. Everybody feels the same way.''
The Rays, who never have won more than 70 games, took their longest winning streak in nearly three years - six games - into Baltimore on Tuesday for the start of a three-game series against the division co-leading Orioles.
With 14 victories overall, they already had set a club record for wins in April and were three games over .500 this deep into a season for the first time. They got there by coming from behind in five of six victories against Toronto and Boston, sweeping consecutive series for the first time since June 2004.
``This is a confidence builder. It indicates and proves to you that we can play with these guys,'' manager Joe Maddon said. ``It's really no big secret what we did. It's not that we did anything spectacularly well, except we played the game properly.''
Improved pitching and defense, as well as timely hitting, have been the key to the strong start put together despite opening the season without one of their top young pitchers, left-hander Scott Kazmir.
The 2007 AL strikeout champion, sidelined since the opening week of spring training with a left elbow strain, is expected to come off the disabled list and make his first start Saturday or Sunday in Boston.
A young rotation led by James Shields has stepped up its performance in Kazmir's absence, and the revamped Tampa Bay bullpen took a major league-best 2.26 ERA into Tuesday night after ranking last in 2007.
``We have a different attitude now. We've had this attitude since day one in spring training. ... I want everyone to know we can compete in this league,'' said Shields, whose two-hit, complete-game shutout finished a weekend sweep of the Red Sox.
``They've heard so much about being the problem. Nobody wants to be the problem,'' Crawford said. ``Plus those guys are pretty good. They've got some talent, and they're just trying to pitch up to their ability.''
Veteran Troy Percival, signed as a free agent this winter, has led the way in the bullpen. In addition to being the positive influence Maddon was looking for in the clubhouse, the 38-year-old closer was 5-for-5 in save opportunities and had a 0.00 ERA following last weekend's sweep of the Red Sox.
Offensively, the Rays have gotten the job done with lots of timely hitting. They came from behind in all three of the wins over Toronto last week at Disney World, then beat the Red Sox twice in dramatic fashion with an 11th-inning RBI single one night and a two-run, eighth-inning homer the next.
Shields outpitched Boston ace Josh Beckett to finish the sweep, lifting the Rays into first place.
``This speaks volumes about what we're trying to do here,'' Crawford said. ``I'd say the last week was a nice growing period for us. ... We're learning how to fight, how to play nine innings to win.''
Others, including New York Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner, are taking notice of the increased competition in the division, where Tampa Bay has finished last nine of 10 seasons since beginning play in 1998.
``I said that before the season started, the American League East is going to be great and it's only going to get better,'' said Steinbrenner, who lives in nearby Tampa.
``The Rays are going to keep getting better. The Jays will always be tough. The Orioles will get better, they're already getting better. It's not just going to be us and the Red Sox in the future. It's going to be the best division in baseball.''
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AP freelance writer Mark Didtler in Tampa contributed to this report.
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