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12/27/10 10:00 AM EST

In '10, hot start leads to AL East title for Rays

ST. PETERSBURG -- Joe Maddon arrived in Port Charlotte, Fla., in mid-February ready to prepare his team for the 2010 season, and a recurring theme continued to haunt the Rays' manager: What might have happened in '09 if his team had not gotten off to such a poor start?

Thus, he reasoned that the only way to find out would be to get off to a good start in 2010. So throughout Spring Training he harped on the importance of getting out of the blocks quickly. And that's exactly what Tampa Bay did.

In April, the Rays raced to a 17-6 mark, establishing a club record for wins in the opening month. Perhaps most significant was the fact they went 9-1 on the road in April after struggling away from home in 2009.

Opposing teams knew what to expect when Tampa Bay came to town as "Rays Baseball" translated to stellar pitching, above-average defense, timely hitting and speed and daring on the basepaths, or just the tonic to battle the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox for the American League East title.

Using a lineup that had great versatility, the Rays were able to start many different combinations, employing countless batting orders on any given night, which kept everybody fresh and sharp throughout the season.

David Price emerged as one of the top pitchers in baseball in his first full season, while Carl Crawford experienced his best season.

Year in Review
Looking back at 2010
MLB Year in Review
Game prospering
Final standings
Statistical leaders

When the Rays' rotation of Price, Matt Garza, James Shields, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis experienced trouble, a quality bullpen was there to rescue them, which was all made possible by the arrival of Rafael Soriano as the team's closer. In the end, the Rays claimed their second AL East title in three years.

What follows are the Rays' top five storylines from 2010.

5. Fast start sets the tone
Tampa Bay went 9-14 in April in 2009, putting the team in a hole. Fast forward to 2010, when the team began the season with a 3-3 homestand. They followed that by winning seven in a row to start a road trip, completing it with 9-1 mark to take a half-game lead in the AL East and setting the template for the season.

4. Rookies make an impact
Talk about the year of the rookie -- 2010 fit the bill for the Rays. Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez broke camp with the team and the rookie infielders remained with the team for the length of the season, playing well offensively and defensively while adding versatility in respect to the many positions each played. Davis also began the season with the team, bringing his nasty stuff to the rotation and performing well enough to finish high in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. John Jaso joined the team early in the season and by the end of the campaign, he was the team's starting catcher. Jeremy Hellickson came up in August and gave the staff a boost while Davis and Niemann were on the disabled list.

3. Crawford has his best season
Long the favorite of Tampa Bay fans, Crawford had his finest season in the Majors in 2010. No player in the modern era (since 1900) has matched his combination of home runs (19), triples (13), batting average (.307), and stolen bases (47) in one season. He also set career highs with 90 RBIs and a club-record 110 runs scored, breaking his own club mark of 104. The Tampa Bay Chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America named Crawford the team MVP.

2. Price becomes one of the AL's top pitchers
Price emerged as one of the premier pitchers in the Majors in his first full season in The Show. The 25-year-old left-hander went 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA in 31 starts and one relief appearance, setting club records in wins and ERA. He began the season as the Rays' No. 4 starter and by the end of the season, he had pitched his way into the top spot. Price finished second behind Seattle's Felix Hernandez in the AL Cy Young Award voting.

1. Rays win the AL East
A year after finishing a disappointing third in 2009, the Rays stormed to the best record in the AL at 96-66. Entering September, the Rays trailed the Yankees by a game and they saw the deficit reach 2 1/2 games. On the final day of the season, the Rays and Yanks had identical records at 95-66 -- but Tampa Bay owned the tiebreaker due to their 10-8 advantage over New York in 2010. On the final day of the season, the Rays notched a 3-2 win over the Royals to win the division outright and claim their second division title in three seasons.

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