Lighthearted approach has Tampa Bay Rays back in AL playoff race

NEW YORK — The pitching has been tremendous, of course. "The centerpiece of all this," manager Joe Maddon says. The defense, too, in tandem allowing the fewest runs in the league.

And, led by Evan Longoria's resurgence, the offense, on most nights, seems back to just-enough standard.

But there are other reasons why, and how, the Rays got here, to the final 10 games of the season, with a legitimate chance — two games behind the wild-card-leading Red Sox after their doubleheader split — to make the playoffs.

Which brings us to the Rolling Stones music blaring from Maddon's office, the matching blue letterman cardigan sweaters the Rays are sporting on this road trip, the small plastic replica of his dog Astro that David Price affixes to the dugout roof each game and the white feather boa (which reliever J.P. Howell had curiously handy) that rookie pitcher Matt Moore wore on the walk out to the bullpen Sunday.

The Rays got back in the race — from nine games out Sept. 2 — because they didn't stop believing that they could, even though no team has ever made it from that far out that late in the season.

But also because they never wavered from the belief, the mantra, the philosophy, to never take it too seriously.

"I think we have a better chance of doing these things by playing relaxed, by playing the game of baseball and trying to keep it unencumbered and not complicate it," Maddon said. "I've seen it both ways. It's intense enough without us applying even more by screwing it up even tighter. … I've seen teams ratchet it up and try to become more intelligent or more intense or more of anything, and it never works."

So Maddon instead works at making sure nothing is ever different, no matter the result the previous day, no matter the challenge ahead of them that night. And the players notice.

"I think it starts with Joe," said outfielder Sam Fuld, who came from the contrasting experience of playing for Lou Piniella with the Cubs. "He talks a lot about just being consistent, and he is. It's very comforting. When you see your leader out there panicking, it definitely rubs off on the players. To see him be the same day in and day out, it's just comforting."

Similarly, the relaxed personalities of team leaders such as Johnny Damon and Longoria are also a benefit.

"This year it's been different," starter Wade Davis said. "I think the group of guys we have, and having Johnny be on the team, has been a huge factor in our attitude. And Longoria — when your best player is relaxed, I think it affects the whole team."

The casual dress code, the absence of any stringent clubhouse rules, the lack of a structured pregame workout and batting practice many days are all part of the culture that Maddon has created in his six seasons on the job. And he can't fathom why anyone would suggest changes just because the stakes they are playing for have increased.

"You want to be more normal now than ever," he said.

That's even more important because the Rays have such a young core, in terms of age and experience. Consider just the weekend in frenzied Fenway Park, with rookies Moore and Jake McGee turning in clutch relief outings, Desmond Jennings playing a large role and Brandon Gomes and Brandon Guyer making key contributions.

"It's been a lot of fun," McGee said. "I love coming to the park every day. Everyone has a good time. Everyone is really loose, not worrying about it or putting too much pressure on each other."

"There's no doubt in my mind the way we play is because of that," Fuld said. "I think it's a huge factor in how we stayed in this."

And as the Rays tonight open a four-games-in-three-days series at Yankee Stadium, knowing they have to beat the AL's best team and hope the Red Sox keep losing, don't expect to see them sweat.

"We just have to go down there and play our normal game," Maddon said. "We're not going to do anything differently; we're not going to over-prepare. We're going to play just like it's April 15th or March 15th or whatever 15th it is. I think our boys are ready for it."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Lighthearted approach has Tampa Bay Rays back in AL playoff race 09/19/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 19, 2011 11:59pm]

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