When the Tampa Bay Devil Rays cut loose well-traveled prospect Jose Bautista this past week, Manager Lou Piniella called the youngster into his office and told him: "We think we're going to contend this year, and we need your roster spot for a veteran who might help us to do that."

Well, how do you like that? Here it is, July already, and the Devil Rays, who visit Baltimore again Monday, are not a laughingstock. They're not in their customary last place -- just as Piniella had famously promised this winter on the luncheon circuit. And they're not dumping salary -- in fact, they are dumping promising young players for the sake of immediacy.

The Devil Rays fancy themselves as contenders? Don't laugh. A 20-6 June (best record in the majors for the month) has them five games behind Oakland in the wild-card race as the weekend begins. And get this: In the American League East, they are considerably closer to the Boston Red Sox (21/2 games behind) than the Red Sox are to the New York Yankees (81/2 games behind).

(And if the Red Sox don't start catching the ball a little better, they're going to find themselves getting passed by the D-Rays, the same way the Orioles did last month.)

"You can't have a better month than we had [in June]," Piniella said this week. "And it really came out of nowhere."

On May 19, the Rays were 10-28, and speculation was rampant that a fed-up Piniella was headed to the New York Mets after the season, if not sooner.

But by getting to the .500 mark over the last six weeks, the Rays not only made history -- the last team to make it back to .500 after being 18 games below was the 1899 Louisville Colonels -- they also propelled themselves to the fringes of (gulp) contention.

"The way we performed against good teams in the National and American Leagues, and the way they compete on a day-in, day-out basis, it's been tremendous to watch," General Manager Chuck LaMar told reporters this past week. "I'm sure we'll have our ups and downs throughout the year, but we'll look back this will be not only a historic month, but a very important one in the building of the franchise."

Until now, LaMar was best known as the frequent subject of one of baseball's most enduring questions: "How has that guy keep his job?" LaMar's high-profile mistakes -- Jose Canseco, Greg Vaughn, Vinny Castilla, etc. -- far outweighed whatever modest gains the franchise was making in its player development, and were a big reason the team finished in last place in each of its first six years of existence.

But beginning last season, the Rays' farm system started producing good-looking big league players on a regular basis. And one of them, left fielder Carl Crawford, has become one of the best leadoff men in the league, with a team-leading .319 average and a league-leading 35 steals.

At the same time, LaMar's latest round of veteran acquisitions deserve applause -- Julio Lugo, Jose Cruz Jr. and Danys Baez have stabilized the infield, outfield and bullpen, respectively -- and the release of Bautista signals the organization's willingness (at least where it doesn't require huge outlays of cash) to go for it this season.

Back when the Devil Rays were 10-28 and in the cellar, we had a good chuckle over Piniella's offseason boasts that his team would not finish last this year. The more we see of the Devil Rays (and, come to think of it, the Orioles), the more we believe Piniella might just be correct.

Fire Sale in Phoenix?

The Arizona Diamondbacks' dismissal of manager Bob Brenly on Friday probably was not the last big move for that franchise this summer, as ownership appears prepared to dump salary and rebuild.

Former Oriole Steve Finley, who is making $11.25 million in the final year of his Diamondbacks contract, could be traded to the San Diego Padres any day now. By virtue of his service time, Finley, 39, has full no-trade power, but he is a former Padre who keeps a home in San Diego, and is expected to approve of a deal there.

Right fielder Danny Bautista and first baseman Shea Hillenbrand might also be traded, and there is a growing feeling in New York that the Yankees might actually succeed in pulling off a trade for ace lefty Randy Johnson.

At the very least, the Yankees are resolved to make a huge push for Johnson (who also has full no-trade power), especially after they lost Freddy Garcia to the Chicago White Sox. Yankees GM Brian Cashman reportedly got an earful from owner George Steinbrenner after that deal went down.

Giants Leery for Schmidt

The San Francisco Giants are already balking at allowing ace Jason Schmidt to pitch in the All-Star Game, July 13 at Houston, because Schmidt is scheduled to start the Giants' first-half finale two days before.

Giants owner Peter Magowan interrupted a conversation between Schmidt and a Giants beat writer in the dugout earlier this week to state his case for excluding Schmidt from the midsummer classic, drawing a parallel between Schmidt's two-inning stint in last year's game and the elbow injury that required offseason surgery. . . .

How could the immensely talented Chicago Cubs still be trailing the St. Louis Cardinals by three games in the NL Central? For one thing, the team has made seven disabled-list moves involving pitchers who had been projected to be on their Opening Day staff. Veteran lefty Mike Remlinger was the latest. . . .

The White Sox's chances of signing Garcia to a lengthy extension would seem to be pretty good, given the fact Garcia is engaged to the second cousin of White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen. . . .

Detroit catcher Ivan Rodriguez will be the first Tiger elected to the All-Star Game since Cecil Fielder in 1991, and it will be highly deserved. The guy the Orioles shunned in favor of Javy Lopez hit .500 in June, becoming the first big-leaguer to hit .500 in a month since Colorado's Todd Helton in 2000, according to research by the Tigers. . . .

ESPN analyst Dave Campbell was the latest figure to link Sidney Ponson's struggles this season to his weight. Speaking of Ponson and similarly built Anaheim Angels ace Bartolo Colon on a radio broadcast, Campbell said, "It doesn't seem politically correct to tell somebody they are fat. But Bartolo Colon is fat, and so is Sidney Ponson. They both have a lot of money, and they need to push themselves away from the dinner table." . . .

Cardinals veteran bench man John Mabry got a start at third base Wednesday when first-half NL MVP Scott Rolen got a day off, and Mabry proceeded to go 0 for 5, including two bases-loaded strikeouts and a bases-loaded double play. Of the 12 runners on base during his five at-bats, he advanced only one -- on one of the double-play grounders.

"Personally," Mabry said afterward, "this wasn't at the top of my to-do list. It was right there with getting a sharp stick in the eye."

Carl Crawford, who came up through the Tampa Bay farm system, has developed into one of AL's top leadoff men with .319 average. Former Oriole Steve Finley, 39, could be traded from downtrodden Diamondbacks to his hometown San Diego Padres, where he played for four seasons between 1995 and '98.