ST. PETERSBURG — Trying to channel Johnny Cash and alter the mood of a team he acknowledged was "way too uptight," manager Joe Maddon changed his look Tuesday, dyeing his distinctively "silver" hair distinctly black.
He's strongly suggesting that other members of the team follow his lead as the Rays head out next week on what has been branded the Ring of Fire road trip, but it's the look on the faces of the players that will matter most as they try to make up ground and make a run at returning to the postseason.
And Tuesday's 5-4 win over the last-place Orioles, though closer than it should have been, colored things the right way. Of course, home runs from Gabe Gross, Pat Burrell and a frisky looking B.J. Upton helped, too, as did a good-but-not-great start by David Price and mostly good relief work, as they improved to 64-54 and moved within three games of wild-card co-leaders Boston and Texas.
"I just think we've been applying way too much pressure to ourselves," Maddon said. "Winning games was almost a relief, and losing was very painful. And that's not us. I don't want that to be us. Win or lose, I want it to be about 30 minutes and move on.
"I've been thinking about it a lot. We've been grinding very hard. I love our effort, I love how much we care. But let's just be a little bit more pragmatic about it and understand what's going on. And let's start processing it in a better way that I think is going to lead us back to the promised land. It's not too late to do that. And I thought the middle of this homestand was the appropriate time to push the button."
The difference in clubhouse atmosphere from last year has seemed obvious, and Maddon finally acknowledged the difference, and the need, despite different personnel and personalities, to recapture what they had. Even if it meant having his wife Jaye dye his hair.
"We got to the World Series last year by being kind of free-spirited about the whole thing and permitting ourselves to go out there and play openly with risk-taking and not worrying and all that kind of stuff," he said.
"The black hair is symbolic of all those different items, and hopefully we'll get the message. And hopefully by (today) you're going to see a few more guys with the black hair out there. A few more Ring of Fire-ists."
Price pitched well, but didn't pitch deep enough into the game, throwing 102 pitches in just five innings. Gross' two-run homer in the fourth put them ahead to stay, but it was the production by Burrell and Upton, who have struggled much of the season, that was most promising.
Burrell, back in the lineup after missing two games with a stiff neck, homered for the eighth time in his past 32 games and continued what Maddon said has been "steadily" looking more like himself.
Upton had three hits (a double shy of the team's first cycle), including his first home run since June 30 (37 games, 151 at-bats), and a triple on a blooper.
"Getting B.J. and Pat playing at their normal level could really be a big boom to us right now," Maddon said.
That, and the right tint.
"It gets dry," said closer J.P. Howell. "We're grinding it out, but sometimes you need something to give you a little boost, whether it be change your hair or cut the Mohawk. I think we're all in."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com