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Tampa Bay Rays looking good again for opening day, but don't expect miracles

The Braves, built much like the current Rays in a 1991 breakout season after a period of failure, celebrate a World Series title in 1995.

Getty Images (1995)

The Braves, built much like the current Rays in a 1991 breakout season after a period of failure, celebrate a World Series title in 1995.

BOSTON — In New York, they never talk about the year after the Miracle.

The lineup was virtually the same. The manager had returned, and the rotation was still intact. The New York Mets of 1970 were just as talented as the year before, but somehow things had changed. They were no longer the Miracle Mets. And they were no longer a World Series team that had endeared itself to the rest of the baseball world.

Which brings us to opening day 2009, the beginning of the year after for Tampa Bay.

When it comes to encores, there is only one that could top what the Rays accomplished in '08. All it will take is finishing on top of baseball's toughest division, repeating as American League champions and winning the World Series. And, even then, you could argue it would probably lack the first-kiss quality of last season in Tampa Bay.

In other words, how difficult is the task ahead for the Rays in 2009?

Are they the Red Sox of 1968, who followed up the Impossible Dream with a fourth-place finish? Are they the Twins of 1992, who failed to reach the playoffs after going from worst to first the season before? Are they destined to be remembered as a team that came out of nowhere one season, and then began the long journey back by the next?

"As we sit here, the day before opening day, we're in a great position to play competitive games in September. That's all we can ask for," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said Sunday, sitting in the visitor's dugout at Fenway Park. "There's so much randomness that goes into a season. It gets to the particular players, the depth you have, some luck, the division you play in.

"There are so many variables that looking at other teams isn't nearly as important as looking at the process that we undertook, even in '06. We talked a lot about how our goals weren't just to have a successful season, it was to be in a position to sustain success. And we feel like what we did to get to this point is much more indicative of how our '09 season will go than maybe what happened in 1970 to the New York Mets."

At the risk of delving too deeply into comparables, there is comfort to be found in the model of the Atlanta Braves of the early '90s. And it's a legitimate comparison since it was a model the Rays had previously studied.

Coming into 1991, the Braves had lost 481 games the previous five seasons. (The Rays had lost 482.) The Braves had four pitchers in the rotation age 24 or younger. (The Rays had five age 25 or younger.) The Braves had given up more runs than any team in the majors the previous season. (So had the Rays.)

Yet Atlanta won 94 games and reached the World Series in 1991 by sticking with their young starting pitchers and vastly improving the defense with three new infielders. Which is exactly what the Rays did in '08.

"Going back to last offseason, we were focused on the run prevention side of things. We went back to teams that had done that well, year over year. We weren't looking to gradually improve over a three-year period, we wanted to impact it immediately," Friedman said. "The Braves with (Terry) Pendleton at third, with (Sid) Bream at first, with (Rafael) Belliard at short, coupled with their young pitching, run prevention was definitely an area they improved in in a hurry."

What goes unsaid is what Atlanta accomplished after that initial breakthrough season in '91.

For the Braves, it was the beginning of an unprecedented run of 14 consecutive post­season appearances. Now, again, the comparables are not perfect. The Braves had far more revenue, which meant the ability to hold on to assets. Atlanta was also not competing in a division with the spending power of the Yankees and Red Sox.

But it can be tempting to look at James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine and David Price, and begin to recall Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery and Pete Smith at similar points in their careers.

In the end, it could come down to expectations. Not the expectations of fans or analysts, but the expectations in the Rays clubhouse. The Mets of 1970 were just as good, if not better, than the '69 World Series champions. Yet they failed to win the NL East. Was it talent, or was it attitude?

The year after is a puzzle Joe Maddon has been trying to solve all spring. Maddon recently read a book on Bill Walsh (The Genius), that included a section on how the 49ers bombed the season after winning their first Super Bowl.

"What happened with the 49ers is that a lot of things were taken for granted. The expectation was they would repeat just because they were a better team. I don't want any of that being spoken around here," Maddon said. "The way I've tried to present it is in a positive way. How did we do it, and how do we do it again? It's the process that I'm looking at."

Maddon is convinced he is managing a more talented team in '09. The lineup is stronger. The pitching staff has more depth. The defense is just as stout as the year before.

No doubt about it, these Rays should be better.

It's just a question of how they will be remembered.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays looking good again for opening day, but don't expect miracles 04/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 6, 2009 7:54am]
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