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For Rays, 2021 motivation comes in different forms

Getting to the World Series in 2020 was a good thing. Losing, not so much. Now, how do they go forward?
Published Mar. 31
Updated Apr. 1

MIAMI — Depending on who you ask, the Rays will open the 2021 season Thursday either fiercely driven by last season’s loss to the Dodgers in Game 6 of the World Series or setting aside that remarkable run as little more than a pleasant memory.

The answer also might depend on when you ask.

At the start of spring training, second baseman and team MVP Brandon Lowe said the loss to the Dodgers gnawed at the players throughout the offseason just as being ousted by the Astros in the 2019 Division Series motivated them heading into 2020.

“I know two years ago when we lost to the Astros, that left a real sour taste in our mouth,” Lowe said in February. “Honestly, this last year I think having that sweetness of being into the World Series and just the way it ended and not being able to celebrate did the same thing for us.

“There’s not a person in here that’s not itching to get back into that situation. Everything about it. It was a blast that we were able to play that long. It was great to get that experience. But there’s not one person that’s okay with how things ended. Everybody wants to get back and prove that we belong and we can actually take one home.”

A week ago, Lowe was asked a similar question and said the Rays need to move on.

“You can’t really look back on the last year,” he said. “I think everybody in the locker room, new and old, we know what happened last year. We understand where we were at and how close we were to coming home with the championship. There’s not a person that wants to look back on Game 6 and relive that experience. We’ve been there. We had the experience. Flush it. We’re looking forward to this year and getting back in that same situation with a different outcome.”

That’s not to say Lowe changed his mind. For a lot of players, the answer to the either/or question was “both.”

Which illustrates the straddling the Rays are doing entering this season, trying to find the motivational balance between the success they experienced last year — which included winning the American League East for the first 10 in years before ousting the Blue Jays, Yankees and Astros in the playoffs — and the frustration of falling just short of their ultimate goal.

“Just to clear the air, we’re not disappointed at all with the way last season ended,” said centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-tenured Ray. “Obviously we didn’t want to come up short, but we accomplished way too much to be disappointed about anything. … To be one of the last two teams standing is something to be very proud of.

“I’m not saying it’s okay to finish as the runnerup. We did not want it to end like that. But we got beat fair and square by a better team in that series, so to speak. And I know it motivated a lot of our guys.”

For that reason and others, the Rays are confident they can avoid the potential pothole of resting on their 2020 laurels, getting complacent, assuming that winning last season (in an abbreviated season) has any currency in this one.

Shortstop Willy Adames is certain that with a mostly young core of still relatively unproven (and low-salaried) key players, that isn’t a concern — and they can prove the experts picking against them wrong again.

“The guys have the same mentality this year — that’s big for us. They’re trying to get better,” Adames said. “That’s what I like about this team. We’re still hungry. We’re still young. We’re still trying to win.”

The last and only other time the Rays reached the World Series, in their 2008 breakthrough season, they took a big step back the following year, finishing third and missing the playoffs.

This year’s group isn’t worried about a similar drop-off despite the loss of top starters Charlie Morton (option declined) and Blake Snell (traded) and spring injuries that will sideline reliever Nick Anderson, first baseman Ji-Man Choi and outfielder Brett Phillips.

“We have to appreciate and recognize what 2020, all the smiles and excitement it brought to us, and hopefully our fans as well,” manager Kevin Cash said before Wednesday’s workout.

“But we’re 2021 now. I think you cherish those memories, but at the same time we’ve got work to do. The players recognize that. It’s a very similar position-player core that is here. The pitching has changed a little bit, but not too much. So we feel we’re a very, very good team.”

For those who view it as motivation, the frustration of 2020 is available.

“We’ve been there, we’ve tasted it and it’s a sour feeling,” infielder Mike Brosseau said. “Everybody talked about the regular season, and it was a fun season. But (winning the World Series) is the ultimate goal, and you fall short. You’re so close. I don’t think sleeping on it eases the pain whatsoever. The easing of the pain is to get back out there and get back into it.”

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