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Tampa Bay Rays open first spring training as 'the team to beat'

PORT CHARLOTTE — With physical exams over early and about two hours to kill before the start of Sunday's first workout of the spring at their new southern home, the Rays had a lot to talk about.

Many sat around the plush Charlotte Sports Park clubhouse, reminiscing about the good times of last season's unexpected ride to the World Series, the bad taste left by losing to the Phillies, and the difference in attitude from any past season as they head into this one.

"It's good to have smiles on our face coming into spring training now," pitcher James Shields said.

Absent another brash prediction by Scott Kazmir, who on the first day last year made what was then a startling proclamation that playing in October was "possible," there was more a quiet confidence throughout the clubhouse about defending their championship against the other 13 American League clubs.

"They've got to try to beat us now," Shields said. "We're the team to beat."

Manager Joe Maddon talked about a lot Sunday, using his preworkout address as expected to implore the players to embrace the concepts of expectations and pressure, but also to discuss humility and gratitude.

"I really believe if we remain humble and are grateful for what has happened to this point, I think that's going to equal self-discipline, which is going to give us our best chance to continue what we're doing," he said. "The analogy I used is that the slippery slope everybody talks about I think is lined with ingratitude and lack of humility. I think that's where people fail, especially after they've been successful. I don't want us to fall into that trap."

But he, too, sensed their confidence, an appetite-whetted, business-unfinished approach.

"Our guys have come in with a good attitude — we're not going to be satisfied unless we get back to the playoff situation," Maddon said. "I know in everybody's minds it's not just about getting there now, it's about winning it all. That's the wonderful part about last year. We tasted all that. We don't want to go and sit home in October and watch somebody else do this. We want to participate."

They talked about finding motivation in different ways.

Some is internal.

"We can't be satisfied with what we did for one year," reliever Dan Wheeler said. "We have to go out and prove not just to the league but to ourselves that we're a team to be there every year at the end of the year. I think if we continue to do the things we did last year, do the little things right, there's no reason to believe we can't be in the same situation."

And some is external.

"I think a lot of guys feel like we have unfinished business from last year," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Also the fact that so many pundits around the country are picking us to finish third, it re-stokes that fire that these guys had last year, that us-against-the-world mentality," he said. "I think from our standpoint it's really motivating these guys to prove everyone wrong again."

They also talked about another gauge: how much the other teams, led by the Yankees, did, and spent, to overtake them.

"That's flattering right there," Kazmir said. "Just knowing what they did this offseason, it's unheard of to see what they actually went out there and got, to see what their starting rotation looks like and whatnot.

"But the funny part about it is we can still match up with them. We know we can beat them. We know we can beat them day in and day out if we play the way we know how to play.

"It's just a good feeling to know you have the respect around the league."

And that's something else worth talking about.

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

Tampa Bay Rays open first spring training as 'the team to beat' 02/15/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 16, 2009 7:45am]

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