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Rays driven by disappointing end to 2019 as they start prep for 2020

“I think we need to build on what we did last year,” veteran pitcher Charlie Morton says.
Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier in practice during the start of spring training in Port Charlotte on Thursday. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier in practice during the start of spring training in Port Charlotte on Thursday. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Feb. 13
Updated Feb. 13

PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays, as manager Kevin Cash famously said while uncorking the team’s clinching celebration last September in Toronto, indeed were “good enough” to make the playoffs.

And as they re-assembled Thursday for their first official workout of this spring, it was clear the Rays are motivated by both the confidence gained from their 2019 success, and the frustration felt in falling short of more.

“It was cool to get to the playoffs, it was cool to feel the feeling,” starter Blake Snell said. “But I felt like everyone felt like we should have gone all the way. The fact that we didn’t makes us that much more excited to try to do it this year. And to get after it this spring and be ready for a long season.”

Charlie Morton, who has the experience of two previous playoff runs and a championship, however tainted with the Astros, said that can work to their advantage.

Related: Could phenom Wander Franco make it to majors in 2020?

“I think we need to build on what we did last year obviously,” Morton said. "In terms of momentum, where this team was in ’18, a really good team in ’18, and then last year to do what we did was great.

“I think that coming off a playoff loss you have extra motivation because you got the taste of it. Winning the wild-card game on the road, then going into Houston and losing in five games. Being that close, it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. “Those are the things that motivate guys. That experience, the playoff experience, will help mature guys. I think the team will better for it."

But with that motivation comes a tricky balance between expectations to win again and pressure to do so.

Veteran centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said he will make sure they come down on the right side.

“Behind closed doors, everyone has that feeling that we can accomplish great things this year," Kiermaier said. “Guys believe that. I believe that. The more you do that across the board, the better.

“That’s the message I’m going to do my best to spread throughout the room, and I think a lot of the other guys are going to do the same. It doesn’t really need to be said, but I’m going to let guys know what we’re capable of. Not putting pressure on us whatsoever. As (mental skills coach) Justin S’ua says, pressure is a privilege. It’s up to us to go out and perform to our capabilities, and if we do that, we’re going to play baseball a lot longer than we did last year."

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell signs autographs for fans during the start of spring training in Port Charlotte. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

There can also be a battle between confidence and over-confidence.

A few hours before being traded to San Diego on Saturday, reliever Emilio Pagan sat for an interview at the Trop and said there’s no shame in swagger.

“I think we push that line as far as we can," he said of his now ex-mates. “I don’t think we should shy away from how good we are and how good we can be. A confident team is a dangerous team. No doubt about it, we’ve got a lot of confidence and we’re excited to try and take the next step."

Thursday, the Rays seemed to have a pretty good handle on it. No one openly guaranteed a World Series championship or banged on a drum (or a garbage can) to boast how they were going to slay the mighty Yankees to win the AL East.

But it was clear they feel, even with some shuffling of last year’s 96-win team, that they have a legitimate chance to win more. And with the prerequisite of good health, possibly it all.

Snell: “I think so. Our pitching is really good. Our defense on paper looks really good. And we’ll be able to hit. I think we can do it all. So I’m excited to see."

Kiermaier: “We have as good of a team as anyone in baseball. I truly believe that."

Tyler Glasnow: “We have the potential to do some pretty crazy stuff."

Cash said he likes that driven approach.

“We want to get better as a team, however they are motivated and push themselves," he said. “Watching the group, I don’t think we’ll have a lax in that. I just don’t see it. And some of the guys that are becoming leaders on this team, they won’t allow that to happen. …

“We want our guys to be confident and feel good about themselves. Just continue to recognize there is constant room for improvement from a team standpoint, and probably individually."

Another benefit of last year’s experience is knowing they can handle situations during the season, such as the seemingly endless string of injuries that threatened to derail them, or playing in the national spotlight.

“There’s a confidence with this group," general manager Erik Neander said. “And I’d expect to see a lot of consistency with how they approach things, as they did late last season."

Obviously, they would like to have won more, to have beaten the Astros, to have gotten a shot at the Yankees with a World Series berth on the line. But now they’ll try to make the most out of losing.

“If you weren’t upset, that wouldn’t be good," Cash said. “You want to be a little upset by it."

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