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How last year’s early playoff exit is fueling Rays entering opener

The first-round knockout by Boston increases Tampa Bay’s drive and determination to win the World Series this season.
Manager Kevin Cash said the Rays need to find the right balance between using last season's early playoff ouster as motivation without dwelling on it.
Manager Kevin Cash said the Rays need to find the right balance between using last season's early playoff ouster as motivation without dwelling on it. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Apr. 7|Updated Apr. 8

ST. PETERSBURG — The banner above left-centerfield that will be unveiled before Friday’s opener will formalize that the Rays’ success last season — a team-record 100 wins and second straight American League East championship — will be remembered forever.

The stinging pain of the premature end — a four-game division series ouster by the wild-card Red Sox — is what they’re trying to forget.

Since pinch-runner Danny Santana scored the series-ending run on a sacrifice fly off reliever J.P. Feyereisen in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4, the Rays have been haunted by the loss and driven to prevent it from happening again.

Young stars Wander Franco and Shane McClanahan sat in the dugout, letting the Red Sox’s celebration sear into their memory bank. Veterans Kevin Kiermaier and Manuel Margot lived with the bitterness throughout their offseason workouts. General manager Peter Bendix admitted, candidly, he still is not over the series and never will be.

“We’ll be playing with that, for sure,” pitcher Josh Fleming said. “It’s never left my mind, and I’m sure it’s the same with the whole team. We’ll have that chip on our shoulder.”

The challenge, starting with McClanahan’s first pitch on Friday, will be to funnel those feelings into focus and force going forward.

The Rays' groundskeeping crew applies the official 2022 Opening Day logo to the field behind home plate Thursday at Tropicana Field, in preparation for Friday’s season opener against the Orioles.
The Rays' groundskeeping crew applies the official 2022 Opening Day logo to the field behind home plate Thursday at Tropicana Field, in preparation for Friday’s season opener against the Orioles. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“It’s always so frustrating, even though you win so many games, to fall short, especially in the first round of the playoffs like that,” outfielder Brett Phillips said. “But it fuels you as a competitor. I think everyone who experienced that — in winning as much as we did and losing how we did — it fueled them to want to be better. And that’s all we can ask for.

“I feel like it would be easy to get complacent and just be like, ‘Oh, we’re good.’ That’s just not how it goes year to year. So it’s really been cool in spring training to see everyone’s mindset and work ethic that we’re not satisfied. We won our division — what’s that? There’s no ring or anything to show for it. So we’ve got to keep the mentality that we can’t be complacent.”

Team officials said they didn’t see any signs of complacency from players as they worked to get ready during the delayed and abbreviated spring training.

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At the same time, they did their part to reinforce the organization-wide drive for an elusive World Series championship, with some of their words — manager Kevin Cash saying in the spring-opening meeting that the team was “built to win” — as well as their actions.

The Rays inked Franco to a massive long-term deal, replaced some veterans who had been traded or signed elsewhere by adding somewhat expensive free agents and promoting top young talent to start the year, and went big-game hunting in pursuing — though not landing — star first baseman Freddie Freeman.

“We are trying to find a way to take that last step that this organization hasn’t found a way to get done yet,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “So I think we look back, we won 100 games. We’re really proud of that — disappointed with the ending — but we’re really proud of the 100 games. A lot of that group has returned, a lot of them were young and gained invaluable experience. … We have every reason to believe that they’re on their way up.”

Rays pitcher Shane McClanahan reacts after giving up a three-run home run to Rafael Devers during the third inning of  Game 4 of the American League Division Series in October in Boston.
Rays pitcher Shane McClanahan reacts after giving up a three-run home run to Rafael Devers during the third inning of Game 4 of the American League Division Series in October in Boston. [ CHARLES KRUPA | Associated Press ]

Some extra incentive, however you find it, can only help.

“The motivation was there,” Franco said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “I knew I wanted to advance a little bit further than I did that day sitting in that dugout.”

Though the Rays feel like they have improved their team, the Blue Jays are the chic pick to the win the AL East this year, with many prognosticators pegging the Rays as a wild-card team at best.

Kiermaier noted that with three straight trips to the playoffs, “I don’t think we’re the underdogs anymore, but there still might be people who don’t expect a whole lot from us saying, like, ‘Okay, I don’t know if this team can maintain this.’”

That, too, provides motivation.

“It’s kind of crazy that I feel like we are overlooked still, even though we’ve won the division the last two years,” Fleming said. “It’s going to be a fun season. Really good competition. And we just look forward to it. Never sleep on the Rays. You saw what happened the last couple years when that happened.”

Everyone on and around the team will process the push and pull differently. Cash said the key is finding the right mix.

“It’s pretty spectacular the way this team performed all season long,” he said. “It didn’t end the way we wanted, that’s for sure. Ended a lot quicker than what we were hoping. I think a lot of guys recognize that, appreciate that, and find that balance of not harboring it but having it be a subtle reminder as we get going here.”

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