Rays' Maddon: Focus on 'the process'

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays come into tonight’s game against the Red Sox not only with the best record in the majors (32-12), but have a six-game lead over the Yankees, their biggest lead ever in the AL East.

They’re 10-2 in the last two weeks, which has allowed their lead in the division to expand from a half-game on May 11 to their current six-game edge. They’re 8 ½ games ahead of the Red Sox, whom they swept in four straight last month in Fenway Park.

I asked Rays manager Joe Maddon if he thought the Rays could create some real separation from the Sox in this series.

“Of course people are going to talk about that, I understand that,’’ Maddon said. “I don’t want us to even think about that. For us, it’s really about one day at a time. I know it’s boring to hear me to say that. That’s truly the way I approach this thing. I don’t want us to apply any more importance to this, or any less, just go out and play.

“We’ve been playing really well because our starting pitching has been great. Our bullpen, because of that, has been really good. You look at our offense, American League, it’s been OK, but the situational hitting has been awesome. And the defense.

“To me, my biggest concern is that we get away from the process. That’s my bigger concern. My bigger concern is that we would think it’s important to win tonight. I would rather we go out there thinking it’s more important we play good defense, run the bases hard, first-pitch strikes, work your at-bats. To me, it’s senseless to think any other way and I think the reason we’re in the position we are is because we have been thinking that way. So this is no time to be changing that.’’

Maddon was asked if he was surprised that the Red Sox are playing better, having won five of their last six games against top competition: Yankees, Twins and Phillies.

“Am I surprised? No,’’ he said. “I was hoping they would take a little bit longer. Obviously, Papi’s getting it going on again and [Jacoby] Ellsbury is back. [Daisuke] Matsuzaka is pitching a lot better right now. They have all these different weapons -- [Daniel] Bard in the bullpen to go with [Jonathan] Papelbon, [Hideki] Okajima, they’re just a really good ballclub.

“I mean, they got off to a bad start. We’ve been there, done that. [Mike] Cameron is getting closer. They’ll be back to full strength soon. They’ll be different.’’