These Rays are for real

MIKE RUTSEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:55 AM ET

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- From being an embarrassment to a having an embarrassment of riches, that's the Tampa Bay Rays.

After they pulled their 'Amazin' Mets' act in 2008 by winning the American League East, then the American League Championship -- going worst to first in the process -- the Rays are everybody's darling this coming campaign.

In the brutally tough AL East, what with the re-vamped Yankees and all, the Rays still are picked by just about everybody to be no worse than a wild-card team this season.

Once again they are led by the eloquent Joe Maddon, who this year must do a subtle shifting of gears and go from managing a team of hope to a team filled with expectations.

"That's a good way to describe it," Maddon said yesterday. "When you're managing hope there's lots of times I had to remain optimistic when things weren't going well.

"In regards to managing expectations, you'd like to believe that you don't have to consistently defend your position. I thought that for the first couple of years here I was playing defence every night. So it's nice to now be able to play a little more offence than defence."

Maddon also doesn't have to spend time being a cheerleader or sports psychologist, a role he performed in the past.

"In the first couple of years, a lot of times after those games (losses), our guys would be down and devastated, things wouldn't be working out so well and you have a fan base clamouring for answers," he said. "You'd just have to remain optimistic and just try to explain exactly what's going on and a lot of times they're not going to believe that until they actually see the finished product."

It's a hard job climbing out of the gutter as the Rays did last season. Now they have an equally daunting task in attempting to duplicate their success.

"To become competitive you have to learn how to win," Maddon said. "Once you do learn how to do that you have everybody nipping at your heels all the time. Once you get to that point it's more about maintain that self discipline and motivation that permits you to at least stay at that level and hopefully increase that. With this group I've told them to be mindful of two words -- gratitude and humility. If they're able to maintain those two characteristics about themselves, then I think with our talent we should be able to continue."

Speaking of talent, rookie left hander David Price, their post-season phenom of '08, is not expected to crack the rotation and be with the club on Opening Day. Instead, he'll receive added seasoning in the minors.

There is a theory floating around that says a team that makes a dramatic leap forward one year usually slumps back a bit the next, but Jays manager Cito Gaston isn't buying it.

He believes the Rays are the real deal.

"I think the Rays are a team moving forward," Gaston said. "I just can't believe that they can go backwards. It's going to be tough to win this division again but don't put it past them that if they don't win the division they certainly have a chance for a wild card. But they're not going to go backwards at all. Their pitching's too good and they went out and improved their offence (free agent Pat Burrell) a little bit so I just think they're going to be a team that's going to be tough to beat again."

The Jays have had trouble beating them period.


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