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09/27/08 2:35 AM ET

Rest of MLB in awe of Rays' turnaround

Odds stacked against Tampa Bay, but it proved it could win big

ST PETERSBURG -- When they set out this spring to put an end to their losing ways, the Rays didn't expect to be a role model for the rest of the league. But with baseball's second-lowest payroll ($44 million), and a worst-to-first turnaround in the American League East, Tampa Bay hasn't just awed opponents, they've inspired them.

"I'm encouraged by it," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said of the Rays' success. "They had a plan and they stuck with it. ... They hired good baseball people and they made good baseball decisions, and it showed up on the field."

It is a philosophy Nationals president Stan Kasten hopes to see in his young franchise down the road.

"How many times have we seen a well-executed plan that you stick to and succeed?" Kasten said. "It's just not the history of the Rays; it's the history of so many great teams now. You go back to recent history to the Diamondbacks, Rockies and Indians last year. The year before, you had Detroit. And you might go back to the Atlanta Braves of the early '90s."

With the Rays 95th win on Tuesday night, the club eclipsed the '91 Braves (94-68) for the most wins by a team that had MLB's worst record the year before.

"It's been a great story, when you look at where they've come from and how hard they've worked," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "[Rays manager Joe Maddon has] done a great job, as has his entire stuff. You know when you play them, they're going to play hard and they have a lot of ability."

Void of any superstar signings or blockbuster midseason trades, the Rays have built a team small on money, but big on results.

"They've got a good young team," former-Ray and current Braves player Greg Norton said. "And this isn't going to be a one-year thing. They're going to be there for a while."

Mariners coach Lee Elia, who spent three years working in the Tampa Bay organization, agreed that the Rays' rise from obscurity is no fluke.

"I never dreamed that it would happen this quickly," said Elia, who left the club following the 2005 season. "But another part of me believed that around this time, with the direction the organization was going, I thought it could be an 81-win ballclub.

"They have done way better than that and they'll be around for awhile. This is not a mistake."

When the Rays began their first place-run earlier this season, many opponents weren't so sure.

"I wrote them off two months ago," Royals pitcher Gil Meche said. "I said like, 'You know what, until they can prove it ...' I don't think anybody thought they could hold off Boston."

Certainly not Tigers skipper Jim Leyland, who admits he doubted whether the young Rays could hold off baseball's "big boys" in the Yankees and Red Sox.

"I didn't think they were quite ready for that yet," Leyland said. "So this is remarkable, really, what they've done.

"I wasn't convinced that they would carry it out and [be on the verge of winning] the division. I thought they'd have a heckuva year. But you have to give them all the credit in the world. They've been remarkable. And they're having fun, they're young, they've got energy and they're good."

And lower-rung teams like Seattle, Kansas City and Washington are sitting up and playing close attention.

"It just shows us that we can do it next year," Meche said. "They basically turned their season around by, what, 30 wins -- something crazy? It just shows, you never know."

With the right moves and a little luck, this season's 90-loss teams could be next year's division-leading Rays.

"Suddenly, they turned things around," Nationals manager Manny Acta said. "Things came together for them and they are in the playoffs. It proves to everybody that when the season starts, you have a chance if you come together as a team and have the right mix."

Even potential playoff opponents like the Central-leading White Sox, couldn't help but voice their approval in the way the Rays earned top billing.

"They showed baseball people they don't have to spend millions and millions of dollars to win," Chicago manger Ozzie Guillen said. "You have to put the right players in the right place. You have to have a nice combination of players."

And the belief Maddon has instilled in those players isn't lost on baseball's other 29 teams.

"It's been a lot of years, a lot of jokes how the franchise was run," said Giants outfielder Randy Winn, who has a soft spot for his former Bay area team and sees nothing to laugh at anymore.

"I think it's a good organization," he said. "I think it's good for baseball and personally, I'm happy for them."

Added Guillen: "Everybody in that organization should be proud. They should be proud and happy and cocky, name it.

"I think they did a tremendous job and [Maddon] handed it real well. ... To me, it's the best thing that happened in baseball this year."

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.