Pressure on Tampa Bay Rays to do it again

For most of their existence, they have fought against despair.

Every year, they would open camp, and the familiar opponents would stand in their way: poverty and history and failure, perception and inability and misplaced directions.

As the Tampa Bay Rays prepare to open spring training this time, however, there is a new adversary.

This time, they are fighting to overcome success.

It is not merely the facility that has changed for the Rays, it is the atmosphere around it. They are champions. They are respected. They are admired. Some obstacles, those.

Granted, this is a much preferred way to begin a season. Still, achievement can come with its own problems, too. For the first time, the Rays are fighting against complacency and ego, against high expectations and pressure. Also, there are the Yankees and the Red Sox.

"You can hear the words like pressure and expectations a lot,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I'm excited by that. To me, those two words carry positive connotations. If you have pressure applied, you must be pretty good.''

And, yes, the Rays ought to be pretty good. The defense still figures to be smothering. The starting pitching is young. The batting order looks more formidable. There is no reason to suspect they won't win.

Ah, but how much winning is enough? Think about this: Last year, if the Rays had won 88 games and finished third, it would have been considered a sensational year. This year, even in a division where the Yankees threw almost a half-billion dollars at free agents, where the Red Sox had the first- and third-place finishers in the MVP voting, it would be seen as a disappointment.

Frankly, that's kind of cool, isn't it?

"I want to use all of those perceived notions and make them a positive,'' Maddon said. "I want pressure. I want us to feel it. I want us to react to it.''

If history suggests anything, however, it is that nothing is promised. Remember those Amazin' Mets, who improved by 27 games in 1969? The next year, they won 17 fewer games. Remember the Cubs of '84, who won 25 more times than in the previous season? The next year, they won 19 fewer. The Rockies of '07, who improved by 14 games, lost 16 more games the next year. Sometimes, a team that turns it around turns right back.

When Maddon was a bench coach with the Angels, for instance, he saw the 2002 team win 99 games, 24 more than in the previous year. But in 2003, the Angels won 22 times fewer.

Things happen. Injuries. Off years. Bad luck. The improvement of other teams. One season's close wins can turn into the next season's close losses. And so on.

Maddon talks about two words, gratitude and humility, to maintain his team's mind-set.

"The moment you lose those two things, the slope becomes more treacherous,'' Maddon said.

"We have to focus on a daily basis. We have to have the same work ethic and not take things for granted.''

The key question for the Rays is this: Was last year's team a one-hit wonder? Or does it have a chance to sustain its success?

"I believe our guys are for real,'' Maddon said.

Not everyone does. Look around, and you see a lot of predictions that have the Rays third in their division. That says a lot about the American League East, but it also suggests that everyone isn't convinced the Rays have staying power.

"Most people in the country still pick us to finish third,'' Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "That's something that will be a motivating focus for us.

"We feel we're a better team than we were last year. We relish the role of us against the world.''

It has been said before, but it bears repeating. One of the remarkable things about the Rays' success a year ago is that it came without anyone having one of those out-of-his-mind seasons. Do you think B.J. Upton will hit more than nine home runs? Do you think Evan Longoria will play in more than 122 games? Do you think Scott Kazmir can win more than 11 games? Yes, yes and yes.

The other factor that argues pretty well for the Rays is that, as an organization, they didn't stand pat. They brought in Pat Burrell, who should provide more thump as a designated hitter. They signed Gabe Kapler and reliever Joe Nelson. Oh, and there is this David Price guy. Before the year is out, he's going to be a factor.

There are questions.

Will the bullpen be as solid as it was a year ago? Will a No. 5 starter be able to match Edwin Jackson's 14 victories? What happens if streaky hitters such as Burrell and Carlos Pena slump at the same time?

Again, there is the division. Yes, the Red Sox are going to be loaded. Yes, the Yankees are going to be tough.

The Rays? They figure to be pretty good, too.

Nothing wrong with expecting it.

.fast facts

Happily ever after?

The Rays won 31 more games last year than the year before, but that doesn't guarantee success this year. A look at some other teams that have had a turnaround year, only to slip backward the following season.

YearTeamRecordImprovementYear after

1967Red Sox92-70(+20)86-76(-6)

1969Mets100-62(+27)83-70(-17)

1984Cubs96-65(+25)77-84(-19)

1986Astros96-66(+13)76-86(-20)

1990Reds91-71(+16)74-88(-17)

1997Marlins92-70(+12)54-108(-38)

1996Padres91-71(+21)76-86(-15)

1999D'backs100-62(+35)85-77(-15)

2002Angels99-63(+24)77-85(-22)

2005White Sox99-63(+16)90-72(-9)

2006Tigers95-67(+24)88-74(-7)

2007Rockies90-73(+14)74-88(-16)

Pressure on Tampa Bay Rays to do it again 02/14/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 15, 2009 7:03am]

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