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Time machine

The Trop was thumping. Josh Beckett was pitching for the Red Sox, but it looked more like BP. The Rays were pounding him: Longoria took him deep, and before it was over, the boys hung eight runs on the Sox ace in just four and a third innings.

Nope, not Thursday’s game, but some six months earlier, October 11, 2008, Game 2 of the ALCS. I’m a newbie Rays fan, having moved here in 2006, but that night I was in Section 312, Row H, and it was the best -- and loudest -- game I’ve ever attended.

And that’s what I was thinking of when Boston rolled into town and threw their ace in the opening game.

Sure enough, the Rays turned on the time machine. Once again, they thrashed Beckett, in almost a mirror of the ALCS game: four and two-thirds innings, seven runs on 10 hits.

But this time, the Rays weren’t sending a tentative, probably hurting, Scott Kazmir to the mound. Kaz is my favorite Ray -- reminds me tremendously of David Cone -- but that night he nibbled when he should have challenged, and the Sox beat him just as bloody.

Nope, on Thursday, they threw Matt Garza instead, and he maintained his mastery of the Sox. Including playoffs, Garza’s 6-1 against the BoSox and has held them to a .213 batting average. And that night, he was even better, just shy of a perfect game.

That set the stage for the Rays taking three of four from many writers’ pre-season pick for AL champ. Among the most telling moments: Seeing Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena go back-to-back off Justin Masterson, both on 90 mph fastballs (or 87 mph, depending on whether you trust FSN’s gun or the Trop’s).

We’re expecting big-time power from Longoria, the Rookie of the Year who’s young and with loads of room to improve. But his fellow cornerman? You never know which Pena is going to come out of spring training, the Silver Slugger or Simply Serviceable.

As of Sunday night, though, he was leading baseball with 11 homers. How is he doing it, and can he keep it up?

Well, he’ s hitting everything in the air -- just 27 percent of his fair hits are grounders, fourth-lowest in the league. And his fly balls are going deep -- just 13 percent of his contact is line drives (seventh-lowest), while an amazing 28 percent of his fly balls are going over the fence.

How amazing? Only two AL players have broken the 30 percent mark for a season in the last five years, the softball-style sluggers Jack Cust and Travis Hafner.

And second to Cust in 2007? Carlos Pena, who kept up the 28 percent pace for the entire season and ended up with 46 homers. He’s done it for a whole season before, and if he too can trun on the time machine, the Rays will have a devastating combo in third and fourth lineup spots this season.

The games highlighted some other keys to whether the Rays can repeat as AL champs, like whether Andy Sonnanstine can keep up the high-wire act, and if this is the year Carl Crawford finally puts it all together. I'll tackle those in the next few days. -- Dave G