Thursday, April 19, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

With Shields, Upton gone, Rays' Longoria focuses forward

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vs. Orioles

Today through Thursday

What's new: The Orioles didn't make many changes to a team that snapped its 14-year streak of losing seasons, finishing second in the American League East and reaching the playoffs. They do get back veteran 2B Brian Roberts, who missed a huge chunk of the past three seasons due to concussions and a hip injury but will move from his usual leadoff spot to ninth. Baltimore will rely on its core, including CF Adam Jones, C Matt Wieters and RF Nick Markakis, and is excited for a first full season of impressive rookie 3B Manny Machado. Opening day starter RHP Jason Hammel, an ex-Ray, tops the rotation, and All-Star closer Jim Johnson leads a bullpen that made the Orioles 73-0 when leading after seven innings last year.

Connections: Hammel is an ex-Ray. Injured Rays DH Luke Scott is a former Oriole.

Series history: The Orioles won last season's series 10-8 and lead the overall series 130-128. The Rays are 69-61 at Tropicana Field.

Joe Smith, Times staff writer

ST. PETERSBURG

More than the stellar talent they have assembled, their promising chances to be contenders, even his own return to health, Rays star Evan Longoria said what he is most excited about going into today's season opener is the camaraderie of the club.

Part of that, he said, is bringing in new players who have quickly become well integrated into their clubhouse culture.

But another, he said, is parting ways with some of their longtime teammates, specifically James Shields and B.J. Upton.

Pausing, searching for words, prefacing his comments that he wasn't speaking negatively, Longoria said the scarring that Shields and Upton endured in the rough Devil Rays days remained a clubhouse issue, and the current team is in "a better mental state" with them gone.

"There was a lot of history with B.J. and Shields and this organization, and I think there were some things that it was tough for them to get beyond," Longoria said. "They were really the only ones that were left in here that were here before the Rays were (renamed) in 2008, when we started to be the team that we are now.

"And I think some of those things kind of stuck around, and as much as you try to instill the new way, some of those things, it was tough to get some of those thoughts out of their head. And so, I think, obviously they were great players, but as far as an over-arching belief in what we try to do here, I think with the new people that we have now, it's a completely new belief in what we're trying to do here."

Longoria said there were no specific incidents involving the two previously longest tenured Rays, just more of a general feeling.

His point seemed to be that while the new Rays organization is known for its tremendous on-field success and, under manager Joe Maddon, as somewhat of a top destination spot for players who are thrilled to be there, that Shields and Upton would, at least occasionally, be stuck in the dark past.

"Obviously they've never said anything negative in the media and I've never really felt it from them, but I think that is kind of the difference in the team this year," Longoria said. "Bottom line, we don't have guys in here anymore that knew how it was. There's no, 'It was … It used to be …' It's all here and now. And what we're doing now. And that's the biggest thing.

"In this game, we always talk about how important it is to play in the now and be in the moment, so to speak. It's tough to do that when you're thinking about the past."

Shields had been in the Rays organization since 2000 and Upton since 2002, and both came to the majors to stay during the 2006 season, which was after the new regime took over but before any success.

Shields was traded this offseason to Kansas City, Upton left as a free agent and signed with Atlanta. (Both had games on Monday and could not be reached for comment.) Reliever J.P. Howell, another holdover, also was allowed to walk and went to the Dodgers. The only player remaining who wore the green Devil Rays uniforms is Ben Zobrist, who isn't one to say anything negative or complain at all.

Maddon said he didn't know of any specific issues with Shields or Upton, though he also said he makes it his practice to only be aware of about "10 percent" of the clubhouse chatter, preferring the players police themselves. He praised Shields and Upton for their contributions on and off the field, and said: "One thing I do know is that they helped us become the Rays."

Longoria offered this analogy: "It's kind of like a long-term girlfriend that you've gone through a lot of tough times with and you've had your good times, but when stuff starts to go bad again then you just only remember the bad times. It's tough to see the bigger picture, it's tough to see what's happening right now."

He said the current group, with the additions of Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson and James Loney, has been great, fueling his confidence the Rays are headed for a successful season.

"We could probably talk about the talents and what we've added for a long time, but I think in the end what really creates a winning environment is a team that comes together early in the year, as early as possible," he said. "When you've got a group of guys that can buy into what you're trying to do here at the big-league level, it makes it a lot easier to go out there and really know what your purpose is, and ours is just to win."

And that atmosphere is different, he said, than it was with Shields and Upton around. "When you've gone through something, times like that that are very tough, you can't be blamed for having those thoughts," he said. "Although they were great players, I just think we're better mentally. We're in a better mental state than we were last year."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

 
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