ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - An Alligator Alley World Series?
Don't laugh. The way the surprising Tampa Bay Rays and Florida Marlins are playing a quarter of the way through the season, almost anything seems possible.
``I'm not going out on a limb and saying we're winning the World Series,'' Tampa Bay's Cliff Floyd said Wednesday. I'm saying this team has let their guys develop, get their feet wet and unfortunately learn how to lose. Now, they're understanding we're ready to win.''
At 23-16, the Rays were seven games over .500 for the first time in franchise history and led second-place Boston by one game in the AL East going into Wednesday night's game against the New York Yankees.
Their .590 winning percentage was the best in the AL and identical to that of the intrastate rival Florida Marlins, who lead the NL East.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was just the second time the Rays and Marlins were in sole possession of first place at the same time. The other was in April 2004, when Tampa Bay was 3-1 and Florida 3-2.
``For us, it's the fun part because nobody expects us to be where we're at right now,'' Marlins outfielder Luis Gonzalez said. ``So we just continue to try to play good baseball, just as the Devil Rays are doing right now too. Both teams from Florida, we both don't draw as many people, and we just go out and play.''
Attendance indeed is a concern for both teams, which had the two lowest opening-day payrolls in the majors: $21.8 million for Florida and $43.8 million for Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay is next to last in the AL, averaging 18,263 per game through 22 home dates. As bad as that is, the Marlins are worse - averaging 14,981 for 21 dates to rank last in the majors.
``It's a little disappointing. I think we're playing a pretty good brand of baseball,'' Maddon said. ``I just want the fans to understand it really does matter to us when we're out there and it's `Let's go Rays' instead of let's go whoever.''
The series opener against the Yankees, normally one of the best draws at Tropicana Field, attracted 13,392. Tuesday night's crowd increased slightly to 16,558, but remained below the 18,872 and 20,923 drew on a Monday and Tuesday last month when the Rays still had a losing record.
The Rays are the only team in the AL East with a winning record within the division, and Tuesday night's win left them 4 1/2 games ahead of the much-hated Yankees for the first time in franchise history.
The previous biggest lead over New York was 2 1/2 games on April 6, 1998. The expansion Rays were only a week old and 4-2 at that point, while the Yankees were 1-4 on their way to winning a record 114 that season.
Outfielder Jonny Gomes said if the team continues to win, the support will increase.
``We really don't have the best attendance, but everybody is following us. ... Now it's a matter of getting them to the stadium,'' the outfielder said. ``You can't be mad that they're not coming yet.''
The Marlins already know that having a pennant contender doesn't necessarily translate into better attendance. They have a history of rising from the ashes to make the playoffs. They've never won a division title, but have won the World Series twice as a wild-card team.
``I got to spring training and saw what I saw with the Expos when we should have won in '94 until we went on strike,'' Floyd said. ``And I saw the team the Marlins had in 2002 before I left and they won the World Series the next year.''
Florida has been no less surprising. The Marlins' 57 homers through 39 games were the most in the majors. Their team batting average (.265) ranked sixth and the pitching staff's 4.25 ERA was 11th.
``Everybody's hungry to win, that's No. 1,'' Marlins third baseman Jorge Cantu said. ``There's young talent all the way around. Everybody hustles. Everybody does what they're supposed to do. Everybody's having fun out there; it doesn't matter the result of the game.''
Consistent pitching, improved defense and timely hitting has been the key to Tampa Bay's success.
The Rays have also been resilient. They rebounded from being swept at Boston May 2-4 to win two of three in Toronto and began a six-game winning streak that carried them into first place in the AL East on Tuesday night.
And they pulled ahead of Boston in dramatic fashion, blowing a 1-0 lead in the ninth only to rebound and win on Gabe Gross' 11th-inning RBI single off Mariano Rivera, who had not allowed a run this season.
``You're looking for growth moments,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said. ``That's one right in front of your face.''
There's nothing flukey about the turnaround. The Rays have swept series at Tropicana Field against Boston and AL West leader Anaheim and carried a club-record 11-game home winning streak into Wednesday night.
``We win close ballgames,'' closer Troy Percival said. ``Another team scores a bunch of runs, we find a way to score more runs.''
Floyd is confident the Rays can stay in the race.
While most of the key players are young, emerging stars such as outfielders Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton and pitcher Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza, offseason acquisitions Floyd and Percival have stabilized the clubhouse.
Floyd's message to the younger players is ``we really haven't done anything yet.''
``In the real world we've done tons because we've probably exceeded what everybody expected,'' he said. ``But for us, we've been way too far on the wrong side of the street to ever feel like this is enough.''
Gonzalez agreed.
``I think the biggest challenge is not getting overconfident when you win games. There's going to be lots of ups and downs in a season,'' the Marlins outfielder said.
``When things are going good, you don't take things for granted, you've got to keep going and try to ride those streaks out as long as you can. And when you're in a losing streak or you're not swinging the bat well, you try to turn it around as quick as you can. I think that makes the difference between a good team and an average team.''
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AP Sports Writer Joe Kay in Cincinnati contributed to this report.

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