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Rays see exhibition mark as springboard

FORT MYERS — The Rays didn't win Wednesday, and that was actually unusual.

As rough as the spring has been with Rocco Baldelli, Scott Kazmir and Ben Zobrist all sidelined, the Rays have enjoyed unprecedented success with a major-league-best 17-6-2 record, and are buoyed by the hope what they've done, and how they've done it, carries over when things start to count Monday.

"We can build off this big time," James Shields said after a four-inning tuneup for his opening day assignment in Baltimore. "This is huge for us. We're a bunch of young guys out here and, along with some veterans, I think we can feed off it. The last couple years I think we've been in last place in spring training and it carried on through the season, so hopefully it will be different this year."

The team-record 17 wins and the top-of-the-standings status can provide more of a psychological benefit for a team that has finished with the worst record in the majors four times and in last place in its division nine times in its 10 seasons.

"With this team, we need everything to be going right all the time; spring training, whenever, things just need to be going well for us to get some momentum," All-Star leftfielder Carl Crawford said. "We're having a good spring and you never know what that's going to mean, but it definitely gives us a better feeling going into the season. You just want to try to go out and do good and get rid of all this negative stuff that's been going on."

Manager Joe Maddon is into positive thinking as much as anyone, but he takes more tangible benefits out of the spring showing, noting how the Rays have played hard, and played well.

And more than wins, he is encouraged by small victories, noting that errors are down, situational hitting (except with runners on third and fewer than two outs) has improved, pitchers are throwing more (and lower) strikes, baserunners are being smart and aggressive.

"We've just been doing the little things properly, and that's what we've been talking about. And because we've been doing them properly here, I don't think that when it comes to this game on the first day that we're going to have to turn up the proverbial dial way higher than it is right now. I think we've turned it up to a pretty good level this entire spring," Maddon said.

"As we've talked theoretically, we want our guys to treat every game the same regardless of the time of year. In fact, what I'm seeing right now, this is exactly what I've been looking for because here comes opening day and I don't want anything different.

"I can't ask for more intensity. I can't ask for more effort. I can't ask for them to care any more, because they have this entire spring. So let's just take what we've been doing now and take it right there. No different."

Senior adviser Don Zimmer, with 60 years in the game, knows how much spring play can mean. Or how little, as he was manager of the 1989 Cubs that went 7-25 in the spring then won the NL East title.

But Zimmer, too, likes what he has seen.

"There's been a little bit of buzz. People are a little excited because we've won so many games," Zimmer said. "There's no question at least going into Monday this team has to feel a lot more positive than they have the past years."

That alone, you might say, is a victory.

Marc Topkin can be reached at
topkin@sptimes.com

Rays see exhibition mark as springboard 03/26/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2008 3:15pm]
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