BALTIMORE — The Rays not only talked a good game throughout the spring, but, for the most part, they played it.
As a preseason of grand optimism yields today to the reality of the regular season, the Rays are convinced that because they are playing the game better, they will play better games.
"I really believe we're ready," manager Joe Maddon said. "I don't want anything to change. I want us to take the same game we've been playing all along here into what they consider the regular season. There's no reason to turn up the intensity or the thought process or whatever. Just keep playing the same game."
What that means is playing the game hard and playing the game right — tidy defense, smart and aggressive baserunning, better situational hitting and increased strike-throwing (and decreased walks).
What that translates to in terms of victories will be the drama that plays out over the next six months.
They've changed their name (dropping the Devil) and switched colors (from green to blue, with that glint of sunshine), but the biggest differences are the sense of confidence and great expectations (to the point where some team officials are concerned they are too high).
So what's realistic?
It depends on who you ask.
Given the improvements made to a team that had a major-league-worst 66-96 record, the consensus seems to be that breaking the team record of 70 wins is a lock.
Team president Matt Silverman went conservative and said a successful season is "a jump forward." Opening day starter James Shields said, "A realistic goal is .500 (81-81); that's definitely realistic." Veteran Carl Crawford said "this team is good enough" to have a winning record. Star-in-the-making B.J Upton insists "anything" is possible: "Win, that's it. As many as we can. Win until you can't win no more. The last game. On TV."
So what are the keys?
A little consistency
The Rays historically can be very good and very bad, and sometimes all within the same week, the same series and even the same game.
That's why you hear Maddon talk a lot about playing the game the same way from the first day to the last, avoiding the season-defining streaks of years past, and from the first inning to the last, eliminating end-of-game mistakes that typically have been costly.
"We just have to stay consistent," Shields said. "That's our main goal, to be consistent throughout the season. The last few years we had these 11-, 12-game losing streaks and that's something we're going to try to stop this year. I think we're capable of doing that, and I think we're fine after we do that."
With the addition of shortstop Jason Bartlett, the move from third base to second by Akinori Iwamura, and noticeable improvement by Upton in centerfield and the projected progress by catcher Dioner Navarro, the Rays believe they are considerably better defensively up the middle.
They are already strong with Crawford in leftfield and Carlos Pena at first base, so the only questions are in rightfield, where Eric Hinske and Jonny Gomes will platoon and Nathan Haynes will help; and at third, where Willy Aybar is holding a spot for smooth-fielding Evan Longoria.
"I've never been around a team that has got this good a defense all the way around," 11-season veteran closer Troy Percival said.
Maddon said the two prime issues are pitching and defense; but if the defense is as good as they think, the pitching will automatically be better (assuming they aren't still walking batters).
A quick start
It tends to get late early for the Rays, who in eight of their previous 10 seasons were 10 or more games out by mid May (and by early June the other two).
While a successful first month always would help, it could be especially vital this season given the momentum they've built through the spring.
"A good start is huge for us," Shields said. "We definitely need to have a good start, we need to continue what we did in spring training."
And not just for the team on the field, but for ticket and merchandise sales, for TV ratings and Web hits, for support for their new stadium.
"A positive start will validate the optimism of our fans and the whole community and provide that tailwind for the entire organization," Silverman said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.