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Major league baseball preview: Tampa Bay Rays face challenges in attempt to repeat as American League champions

Evan Longoria, left, gets doused by Fernando Perez, who gets drenched in return by Shawn Riggans after the Rays put away the Red Sox in Game 7 of the ALCS. A World Series loss left unfinished business.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Evan Longoria, left, gets doused by Fernando Perez, who gets drenched in return by Shawn Riggans after the Rays put away the Red Sox in Game 7 of the ALCS. A World Series loss left unfinished business.

Beating out the Red Sox and Yankees to win the American League East and advancing to the ALCS and the World Series was so much fun, the Rays figure it's worth repeating.

So with their payroll hiked, their lineup and bullpen fortified and their attitude appropriately adjusted, they'll set out to do something that has been done 16 times in the 39 seasons of divisional play: make a repeat appearance in the Series.

"It's a very difficult task," Troy Percival said.

"We've got the team to do it," B.J. Upton said.

They'll have to again survive baseball's toughest division, then win two playoff series — a course (thanks to the 1995 addition of the Wild Card) only the 1995-96 Braves and 1998-2001 Yankees have navigated.

Talent, focus and good health are all essential. Luck doesn't hurt. The right mental approach is vital.

"You can't have your kids patting themselves on the back too hard or too long,'' said Joe Torre, who managed the Yankees to four consecutive Series and six in eight years.

"I think the most important thing you have to understand is that to repeat what you do, you have to get better at it. I don't think anybody can stay the same and expect the same result. Once you're on that radar screen as being expected to contend, you have to progress. One thing I was blessed with in New York was a lot of players who stayed hungry. You have to maintain that hunger.''

Head games

Can: Unfinished business

Losing the World Series had at least one benefit, as the Rays sound sincerely determined to get another shot.

"I think we felt like we came up a little short, and we're motivated to get back," Carl Crawford said.

They should be. "When you do win, it becomes more intoxicating," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "You got to experience it, and you want it worse."

"They got a little of taste of it," said Cito Gaston, who managed the Blue Jays to back-to-back Series in 1992-93. "They're going to come in motivated."

Manager Joe Maddon hopes so. As much as he wants the Rays to play better, he is more concerned with what they're thinking, determined to avoid the mental pitfalls that derailed previous unexpectedly successful young teams.

"I thought if we were to come in here somewhat complacent or inflated in the wrong way, it could have the greatest negative impact in the entire season," Maddon said.

"So that's where I came up with the gratitude-and-humility theme (of his spring-opening address). I was thinking, what are the qualities I need most in order to want to go out and do the same kind of job, or better, this year than I had done the year before. I thought if I maintain my humility and my gratitude sincerely then I will retain my self-discipline, and if I do that I could do as good or better."

Can't: Extra baggage

Complacency is one legitimate concern. So is the transition from hunter to hunted.

The Rays talk a lot about the differences of playing with targets on their back. And, expanding their analogy, they'll also have pressure on one sleeve and expectations on the other.

"Everyone's going to be gunning for us," Scott Kazmir said. "The Yankees, the Red Sox, all those guys, they want to put it to us."

"It's going to be tough," Crawford said. "You're going to get their best stuff, and every day someone's going to try to test you."

Plus, they no longer have the benefit of surprise.

"When you go into somebody else's stadium, you're going to get their best: a good crowd, they'll set up their rotation," Francona said. "You don't just sneak in and out of town."

Things have changed

Can: They're better

The Rays feel they improved a team than won 97 games by bolstering an offense that ranked in the AL's bottom half in hits, runs and total bases, and adding depth, plus the return of a healthy Percival, to an at-times adventurous bullpen.

The big boost to the lineup is the addition of right-handed slugger Pat Burrell, who should correct their major deficiency against left-handed pitchers.

"It's amazing what one guy in the lineup can do," Percival said.

Plus, Maddon expects "more typical seasons" from several returning Rays, such as Crawford and Upton, who had below-average numbers due to injuries and other issues; and more from AL rookie of the year Evan Longoria, who should be more comfortable.

The best measure of the bullpen's improvement is the difficulty the Rays had in making the final decisions. And having a healthy Percival is huge because it moves the others into less significant roles.

Can't: So is the rest of the division

There are about 500 million reasons why it's going to be difficult for the Rays to repeat, which is what the Yankees and Red Sox spent on free agents to narrow the gap.

With CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett in their rotation and Mark Teixeira in their lineup, the Yankees are considered by many the AL favorites. With Brad Penny, John Smoltz and ex-Ray Rocco Baldelli, the Sox should be able to push both teams longer and harder.

"It's going to be a test," Burrell said. "Are we ready for the challenge?"

"It absolutely makes it tougher," Percival said. "But neither one of those teams was bad last year. Any one of the three teams could have won the division last year, there's no doubt. It came down to the team with the least amount of bad spells."

Can: So what

Reporters regularly ask Maddon about their divisional foes, expecting him to be in awe. Instead, he's usually dismissive: "It has nothing to do with us."

Plus, Maddon says, "Everyone talks about their names. I like our names. A lot. And I think if everyone sat down and broke it down, they would agree with me." (For a look, see AL East breakdown, 13X).

And the Rays feel like they've proved it takes more than just good players.

"I look at midseason last year and all these teams picked up guys and we didn't make a single move, and we still got the job done," James Shields said. "No matter who a team picks up, you've still got to have that team chemistry and team unity. You've got to be able to play together as a team. It's not all about how much money you spend."

Back to the future

Can: Drawing on 2008

The experience and confidence the Rays gained last season is invaluable, and it makes sense to use that as they go forward.

"There's a lot of great stuff to look back on," Carlos Pena said, "great stuff that we can use to our advantage — for confidence, for assurance, for 'Yes, we can.' "

Can't: Or not

"We can't look at what we did last year," Kazmir said. "That's got to be in the past. We've still got to have that hungry kind of attitude. Nothing's going to be given to us. It's not like just because of where we finished last year we're automatically in a range of what our record is supposed to be."

On approach

Can: Trying to do the same thing

The biggest challenge in repeating may be in not making this season more of a challenge than last.

The Rays survived injuries (six front-line players, two starters and their closer on the DL), controversy (the brawl with Boston, Dioner Navarro-Matt Garza dustup, Upton benching) and the pressures of their first pennant race.

"It was a great story," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "I'd think, 'What a bad break, how can they keep doing it?' And they kept doing it. So I don't think any of that is going to change this year."

That's their plan, anyway.

"I don't want us to think that all of a sudden we have to change our game," said reliever Dan Wheeler, a member of Houston's 2004-05 playoff teams. "If we just continue to do what we did last year, play our game every single day, worry about what we have to do and not worry about the opposition, I think we'll be okay."

"Just staying in the now," Pena said.

Former Rays such as Jonny Gomes (Reds) and Eric Hinske (Pirates) think they will be. "There's no reason to think they can't do it again, especially with the makeup of the club," Hinske said. "They've got guys with their heads on right."

Can't: But not too hard

The chemistry in their clubhouse will be different, with veteran leaders such as Hinske and Cliff Floyd among the departed. So, too, is the atmosphere.

"We just have to have the right approach," Upton said. "We have to stay within ourselves, have everyone do their little part. We can't try to repeat."

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

MLB preview 2009 | rays.tampabay.com

MLB preview 2009 | rays.tampabay.com

fast facts

Repeat after me

Sixteen teams (12 in the AL) have made back-to-back World Series appearances since the 1969 start of division play, a repeat rate of about 20 percent (16 of a possible 76):

1969-70-71Orioles

1972-73-74A's

1975-76Reds

1976-77-78Yankees

1977-78Dodgers

1988-89-90A's

1991-92Braves

1992-93Jays

1995-96Braves

1998-99-2000-01Yankees

Major league baseball preview: Tampa Bay Rays face challenges in attempt to repeat as American League champions 04/03/09 [Last modified: Sunday, April 5, 2009 8:18am]

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