Rays manager Joe Maddon got an e-mail from a friend recently. The guy complained that his newspaper must have printed the American League East standings upside down because it had Tampa Bay at the top.

The baseball world always pays plenty of attention to Florida . . . in February and March.

Once the regular season begins, though, not so much. Even with two teams located in the Sunshine State, the Florida Marlins and the Rays have rarely offered much to shout about.

The Marlins are as well known for their roster-gutting fire sales as their two world championships. And the Rays have never even had a winning season. Both clubs annually rank near the bottom of the major league standings.

Suddenly, though, with the season one-third spent both Florida teams are currently in first place.

While the Marlins have had their moments, this is uncharted territory for Tampa Bay.

The Rays have had at least a share of the top spot in their carnivorous division for 17 straight days. In the previous 10 years of their existence, they could make that claim for a total of just 15 days.

Their 17 wins in May going into last night were the second most of any month in franchise history and they have won nine of their last 11 series.

They're doing it while having to compete against the free-spending Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays, which makes their accomplishment that much more remarkable.

"I think the guys are handling this very well," the low-key Maddon told reporters recently. "It's the confidence that's been gained. It's the momentum that you create . . . It's a feeling that did not exist before, so first of all you have to nurture it and grow it. And then, once you've got it, you have to do everything you can to hold onto it, because it can go away."

The Rays took a chance last winter by trading away talented players who might have been considered distractions, Elijah Dukes and Delmon Young, in an attempt to improve their clubhouse chemistry.

"I'm a believer in intangibles," Maddon said. "I know it's true and it does make a difference."

That's why the left hamstring injury suffered by closer Troy Percival during Wednesday's win over Texas is such a concern. The veteran has been a highly influential presence. Yesterday, Percival was placed on the 15-day disabled list.

But Tampa Bay has a solid core of good, young players like Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria and pitchers like Scott Kazmir, many of whom have already agreed to long-term contracts. Like the Marlins, the Rays also have a new stadium on the drawing board.

So the long-term future looks bright. Or as exuberant designated hitter Jonny Gomes said during a live postgame interview recently when asked what it's like to be a Ray these days: "I'll tell you what: It doesn't suck." *