PORT CHARLOTTE — Left-hander Jake McGee's winter in Reno, Nev., was a little more laid-back this year.
That's because, for the first time, McGee, 25, didn't take a second job.
McGee usually had kept himself busy after baseball seasons by working for a friend's courier service company. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., five days a week, McGee would cram his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame into a Saturn, delivering papers to real estate brokers.
"It was pretty easy," he said, smiling. "Just drove around all day."
But the fact that McGee instead relaxed this offseason was fitting, considering the hard thrower was coming off a rookie year in which he established himself in the Rays bullpen.
McGee shook off a rocky start in which he was being too fine and instead trusted his stuff — specifically a mid to high 90s fastball — down the stretch in picking up four confidence-building September wins.
"He believes he belongs," manager Joe Maddon said. "Last year, I think he was more in survival mode, Stage 2 — 'I like this, I really want to stay here, I want to please people,' never the thought about winning that night. The thought was more about not looking bad as opposed to doing something to help us win. That's the dangerous stage of development that never helps you as a team or organization to really win. You have to get them to Stage 3."
McGee's ability has rarely been questioned. He emerged as one of the team's top pitching prospects after getting drafted in the fifth round in 2004, converted from starter to reliever and even overcoming Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in 2008. But McGee, upon making his first opening day roster last year, was too tentative early and got sent down to Triple-A Durham after posting a 5.14 ERA in the first month.
"I was trying to aim the ball and not letting the stuff I have do its work," he said.
When McGee returned in mid July, he had a different look — and approach. Figuring he had nothing to lose, McGee decided that if he was going to get beat, "they'd have to beat me with my best stuff."
He finally believed he belonged during a three-game stretch at the end of the season. On Sept. 18 at Fenway Park, McGee earned the win after throwing 22/3 innings, retiring Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz.
McGee also was the winning pitcher in the Rays' final two victories, including Game 162, against the Yankees, when, before Evan Longoria hit his walkoff homer in the 12th, he got himself out of a first-and-third, no-out situation in the top half of the inning.
"I felt like I could get any big-league hitter out if I had my best stuff," McGee said. "It's helped a lot confidence-wise, and I feel like I'm part of the team, a little more settled in."
McGee's camp didn't start so smoothly when he hurt his elbow in a "freak accident," a foul ball hitting him while he was leaning against a batting cage. "Never going to do that again," he quipped.
But McGee feels he's even more prepared for this season, with his fastball velocity close to where it should be. And he says he's throwing his slider harder than he has in his life.
"This year," McGee said, "I'm ready to go."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]