Tampa Bay Rays enter season of expectations with crucial opening stretch

Check that Joe Maddon lineup daily. Carlos Peña, center, is slated to hit seventh today, well after first-time cleanup man Jeff Keppinger, right, who hits lefties and CC Sabathia well enough to put new high-dollar DH Luke Scott on the bench.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Check that Joe Maddon lineup daily. Carlos Peña, center, is slated to hit seventh today, well after first-time cleanup man Jeff Keppinger, right, who hits lefties and CC Sabathia well enough to put new high-dollar DH Luke Scott on the bench.

ST. PETERSBURG — Despite all the glowing reviews and glorious predictions, the Rays were already facing a challenge.

And that was before they went through a miserable spring training, in which more than a dozen players missed time with injury and they won less than a third of their games.

And before they had to put two of their key players, closer-designate Kyle Farnsworth and centerfielder B.J. Upton, on the disabled list.

And before they settled on a 25-man roster that included the unexpected duo of Stephen Vogt and Josh Lueke, and an opening day lineup with Elliot Johnson ahead of Carlos Peña in the batting order. (Who had that in the pool?)

And now, as they finally begin their season of great expectation this afternoon, they have to play the AL East champion Yankees and face ace CC Sabathia.

And then the Tigers. And then the Red Sox, and the Blue Jays and, after the Twins, the Angels and the Rangers. Sixteen of their first 22 against arguably the five other best teams in the American League, 24 of 27 versus teams that were .500 or better last year.

"I think the word 'urgent' sounds like such a dangerous word, but I think we do need to place some urgency on the beginning of the year," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "Right out of the gates we've got to place a lot of importance on this first half of the first month and try to come out of the blocks hot."

The Rays did it the other way last season, losing their first six and eight of their first nine, then battling back to claim a wild-card spot on the final night of the season with just a wee bit of drama.

But they know better than to think that would be possible, much less probable, again, especially with the improvements made by teams such as the Angels and Blue Jays, and the emphasis all teams will place on winning a division given the new wild-card format.

"There's no denying we want to get off to a strong start," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's very important. We proved that we can do it another way last year like we did. It's not the easy or the right way to do it. You prefer getting off to a good start. Our schedule is not easy, but that's okay. I really believe that brings out the best in us when we play better teams."

They'll need all of their Maddon mojo and magic to navigate the first month, and might be fortunate to get to May — with Upton back and Farnsworth at least close — with a .500 record.

With starting pitching their strength and defense a forte, the bullpen will be patched together by committee and the lineup designed daily to maximize the matchups.

Which is how Jeff Keppinger, with a career .852 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against lefties and a 6-for-14 mark against Sabathia, is hitting cleanup for the first time in his seven-year career today with lefty-swinging $5 million DH Luke Scott on the bench. And why light-hitting, part-time-playing Johnson, who is 2-for-9 with a homer against Sabathia, is slotted in the order ahead of Peña, who is 4-for-35 with 19 strikeouts.

"What's going to separate the teams that go home from the teams that play in October is going to be razor thin," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "What gives us the confidence going into the season is how much our guys appreciate that and get the fact that each and every game, each and every inning, each and every at-bat is so important, and may very well determine whether you stay home or play on. I'm confident we'll get after it from the start."

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

Tampa Bay Rays enter season of expectations with crucial opening stretch 04/05/12 [Last modified: Thursday, April 5, 2012 9:15pm]

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