The tone, the Rays will tell you, was set last October. They missed the playoffs a year after a magic carpet ride of a 2008 season in which they posted the first season of more than 70 victories in club history and rode that momentum all the way to the World Series before losing to the Phillies.
"The worst thing in the world was sitting at home last October," right-hander Matt Garza said. "I didn't even watch any baseball. I couldn't bring myself to turn the channel to any of the playoff games. I just couldn't do it. When you get that first taste of the playing in the postseason, it's hard not to be there. I know how badly everyone on this team wants to get back. We're all motivated by not making the postseason."
The Rays went 84-78 last season but never had the same spark as in 2008. Many of the players on a young team admittedly got caught up in the new-found notoriety and took for granted that the Rays would win again in 2009. That mindset clearly went out the door when last season ended.
The players began working out harder and earlier in the offseason. Many hitters spent time at Tropicana Field working with new hitting coach Derek Shelton.
"The offseason reminded me a lot of the offseason between the 2007 and 2008 seasons," manager Joe Maddon said. "We had a lot of guys at The Trop that winter, too, and it was a good stuff. It set a good vibe going into spring training."
The Rays built on that vibe in Port Charlotte, going 20-10 in the exhibition season for the best record in the major leagues.
"I know the games don't matter in the spring, but I still think it set a good tone just to get that winning feeling," second baseman/right fielder Ben Zobrist said. "It gave us a good feeling heading into the season."
The Rays are 10-4 and had won seven games in a row before losing to the White Sox on Tuesday night. Included in that streak was a four-game sweep of the Red Sox at Fenway Park last weekend. The Rays can't help but feel like its 2008 all over again.
"We have a confident team," Maddon said. "We have essentially the same group of players who played in the World Series two years ago. They've grown. They're two years better and two years wiser. Our guys proved two years ago that we can play with anybody in baseball and people forget that we did have a winning season last year, even if it wasn't quite the season we had envisioned going in. We certainly have no reason to think we'll be anything but a team contending for a championship this season."
The Rays certainly look like a contender so far. They are second in the American League in runs scored with an average of 5.07 a game and fourth in runs allowed with a 3.71 average. First baseman Carlos Pena and third baseman Evan Longoria both have .323 TAv and left fielder Carl Crawford is at .313 while Garza's 1.2 SNLVAR is tops in the major leagues.
The Rays' biggest challenge might be just getting out of their division. A strong case can be made that the three best in baseball are all in the AL East in the Rays, Yankees, and Red Sox (their current woes not withstanding). Making the Rays' task more difficult is that their payroll of $71 million is the largest in franchise history and stretches the bounds of owner Stuart Sternberg's spending limits but it's half of those of the Yankees ($206 million) and Red Sox ($162 million). Thus, Crawford and Pena could be in their last seasons with the Rays as they can become free agents in November.
While the idea of floating realignment would seem tailor-made for the Rays, as well as the Orioles and Blue Jays, Zobrist says the Rays do not back down from the challenge of playing with the two biggest spenders in baseball.
"We realize the difference in payrolls but that doesn't bother us," Zobrist said. "We feel our team is as good as any in baseball, regardless of how much money guys might be making. Nobody thinks about payrolls when you're playing the game. It never enters our minds that we can't compete with any team."
A bit of a furor erupted last weekend in Baltimore about whether Orioles owner Peter Angelos had turned down Cal Ripken Jr., when the Hall of Famer reportedly asked for a job with the organization. Throw in the fact that the Orioles have the worst record in the major leagues at 2-13 following 12 consecutive losing seasons, and it is easy to understand why a frustrated fan base was ready to hang Angelos without a jury trial.
Ripken acknowledged through a written statement that he has indeed talked to Angelos and Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail about joining the organization. However, Ripken also said that a foxsports.com report that Angelos did not want hire him for fear that the Iron Man would get too much credit for a potential turnaround of the franchise was not accurate.
"I have had a very good relationship with Peter for a long time," Ripken said. "He has been an advisor to me, a great supporter of my foundation and it is because of him that we have an Orioles' affiliate in Aberdeen."
Ripken has not expressed a desire to return to Major League Baseball since retiring in 2001. He has kept busy by running his charitable foundation, owning minor-league baseball teams in Aberdeen, Md., Port Charlotte and Augusta, Ga., and co-hosting a weekly show on Sirius XM/Radio with his brother Billy.
However, those around the Orioles believe Ripken will eventually join the organization once his youngest son graduates from high school in two years. Those who know Ripken say he won't settle for a ceremonial title and wants to do something that would make an impact with his old team. Angelos also has much respect for Ripken to bring him back as a figurehead. With Angelos strongly committed to MacPhail for the long haul, signs point to Ripken most likely returning to the Orioles as their manager in 2013 or beyond.
"Cal has many interests and is a very busy guy," Angelos told the Baltimore Sun. "I don't think he's ever considered himself available to play some secondary role with the ballclub and appropriately so."
The bullpen has blown four of seven save opportunities and the relievers are so shaky that Piniella said his strategy for each game is "to pray that the starting pitcher goes seven innings." The Cubs have also scored just six runs during their current four-game losing streak, including getting shut out on three hits by the Mets' Mike Pelfrey and three relievers on Tuesday night. They are next-to-last in the National League in runs scored with 4.08 a game, ahead of only the Astros and their Dead Ball era-like 2.33 average.
Piniella did shake up the batting order Monday night against Mets left-hander Jonathon Niese. Shortstop Ryan Theriot was dropped from leadoff to eighth, center fielder Marlon Byrd moved up from second to leadoff and second baseman Jeff Baker was jumped from seventh to second. Yet, the Cubs lost 6-1. The new-look order will get two more shots against lefties in the four-game series, facing Oliver Perez tonight and Johan Santana on Thursday.
"I'm just trying to see if we can spur this offense on a little bit," Piniella said. "I'm going to see if that does a little more for us. Shake it up a little bit."
Some observers believe Theriot's drop in the order could be greasing the skids for him to be replaced by Class AA Tennessee shortstop Starlin Castro. Another scenario if the Cubs call up Castro would be to shift Theriot to second base, a move to which he says he is amenable.
Though it is becoming apparent that the Giants are already losing faith as John Bowker as the answer in right field, they are more inclined to go with in-house options Nate Schierholtz and Andres Torres than sign free agent Jermaine Dye. … Look for Jeff Keppinger to continue to get the majority of starts at second base instead of Kazuo Matsui as the Astros look to bolster their offense. … The Cubs will basically hold a pitch-off to see who stays in the rotation as the fifth starter when left-hander Ted Lilly comes off the disabled list Saturday. Carlos Silva starts tonight against the Mets and lefty Tom Gorzelanny faces them Thursday. … Trade speculation is heating up regarding slumping White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, particularly since he can become a free agent at the end of the season and heir apparent Tyler Flowers is doing well at Triple-A Charlotte. … Cubs GM Jim Hendry on left fielder Alfonso Soriano: "He's not going to ever be the guy that we signed, from a running and speed standpoint, because of the leg injuries he has suffered. Now, he has to be the guy who hits .260-.270 and hits the ball out of the park 30-35 times a year." … Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu on left fielder Milton Bradley: "I think the fans have got to realize this guy cares and is not a sideshow. He cares a little bit too much and that creates a lot of anxiety for him." … Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca on right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, who pitched a no-hitter against the Braves last Saturday: "His stuff is exceptional and you know something big can happen every time he pitches."