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05/18/10 4:33 PM ET

First-place Rays ready for Yankee Stadium

Team embraces the excitement of playing in New York

ST. PETERSBURG -- Bright lights and the big city await the Rays as they travel to New York to square off with the Yankees in a two-game showdown at Yankee Stadium between the top two teams in baseball.

The Rays, who own the best record in the Major Leagues, are 1-2 against the Yankees this season, having lost a series at Tropicana Field on the season-opening homestand. In that series, the Rays won the first game, 9-3, then were outscored, 17-3, in the next two.

"I think from then to now the teams are a little different," B.J. Upton said. "The last time we played them we were just kind of getting started and into the swing of things. Both of us are playing better baseball now. It should be exciting and fun."

Carl Crawford pointed out that starters CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett were particularly sharp against the Rays in the first series.

"It's going to be tough when you face them any time," Crawford said. "We're just going to try and come in and play our game. Do what we've been doing."

While a lot of young teams such as the Rays might be intimidated about heading to New York to play a big series, this Rays team has grown up playing the Yankees nine times a season in New York. The Rays have now reached a point where they can appreciate and enjoy the spectacle of playing at Yankee Stadium.

"We like that stuff, our guys like that stuff," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I think we've gotten to like that over the last couple years; the young group of players that we have, to go in this division and consistently have to play in Yankee Stadium, the new Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park -- it helps you grow up a bit."

According to Maddon, being comfortable in such surroundings is important.

"To be able to be yourself, play your game when the venue gets a little bit hot," Maddon said. "I thought we had a breakthrough in Anaheim a little bit this year. That's a hot venue also, as far as I'm concerned. Any team that's a perennial playoff contender, you've got to play well in their ballpark."

James Shields, who will start against Andy Pettitte on Thursday night, agreed with his manager, saying that the past couple of years he's been able to enjoy playing in New York rather than allowing the surroundings to put extra pressure on him.

"The New York fans have been great," Shields said. "They talk their trash and they're good baseball people. They know their baseball. I'm excited to go out there, being in first place, and being able to compete. It's going to be a pretty cool series."

Shields, like many of the Rays players, played at the original Yankee Stadium before playing at the new Yankee Stadium.

"I don't want to say it's got the same excitement, because the old Yankee Stadium -- that's the real deal right there," Shields said. "I'm fortunate enough that I got a chance to play in it.

"The new stadium, it's a billion-dollar stadium. It's pretty nice. I definitely like the clubhouse a little better in the new one. It's a little more roomy. [6-foot-9 Jeff] Niemann can actually fit in there. He doesn't have to duck going in. Either way, it's Yankee Stadium. They pack the house every single night."

Any competitor wants to know how he ranks against the best and the Rays are no different. Going up against the reigning World Series champions should provide a quality litmus test for the early season.

"You always want to see where you're at against the best teams," Crawford said. "We'll definitely get that challenge these next two days.

"This is really an exciting time for us. This is why you play, because you want to be in these kinds of situations. And you just hope that you come out on top. But it's definitely exciting for everybody."

Added Shields: "They're fighting us to take our lead right now, so it's going to be an interesting series."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.