ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles embrace heightened expectations that accompany success within the rugged AL East, which again figures to be one of the most balanced divisions in baseball.
The teams begin the season Tuesday at Tropicana Field, each brimming with confidence and eager to set the tone for achieving a goal of playing deep into October.
“We feel we have a group that is capable of getting to the playoffs, playing the last game of the year and winning it,” Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said Monday.
“You should never run away from expectations,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon echoed. “We don’t believe it’s hyperbole. We really think it can be done.”
So do the Orioles, who stopped a string of 14 consecutive losing seasons by winning 93 games and beating Texas in the AL wild-card game last fall.
One of the challenges this year is to prove their run, which ended with a loss to the AL East champion Yankees in Game 5 of the divisional series, wasn’t a fluke.
“We went through a heck of journey together last year. We’ve got a lot of people that know what the journey is about, and know what’s expected,” Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said.
“It seems like an eternity since we started spring training,” Showalter added. “But it doesn’t seem like an eternity since we finished in New York last year. I think that’s good.”
AL Cy Young Award winner David Price (20-5, 2.56 ERA in 2012) will make his second career opening day start for the pitching-rich Rays, who have the third-best regular season record in baseball over the past five years behind the Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies. The Orioles will counter with Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.43), who welcomes the opportunity to help Baltimore get “off on the right foot.”
A strong April could be one of the keys to getting back to the postseason.
“Everybody knows the division is going to be tough the whole year, so you want to get off to a good start. … The Rays are a good team with a good staff, and I hope we can grind out some wins,” Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said.
“It’s more important to get off to a good start in general just to build yourself some momentum,” center fielder Adam Jones said.
“The schedule is not going to change. We’re going to play our division a lot and I’m sure in September, we’re going to be heavy-loaded with playing them again,” he said. “We’ve all got to play the same schedule. It’s just a matter of who’s going to come out on top.”
Despite playing a significant portion of 2012 without Longoria, a three-time All-Star who was sidelined three months with a partially torn left hamstring, the Rays won at least 90 games for the fourth time in five years and finished third in the division behind the Yankees and Orioles.
But after making a surprising run to the World Series in 2008 and returning to the playoffs twice over the next four years, anything short of playing deep into October is a bitter disappointment in Tampa Bay.
Maddon expects a solid pitching staff led by Price and closer Fernando Rodney to again fuel a strong bid for the division title. He also believes the offense and defense could be more efficient with the addition of infielders James Loney, Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar.
“Our goal is not to be watching everybody else play at the end of the year,” Maddon said.
“That’s our mindset. We never count ourselves out. We continue to plug on,” Price added. “Nobody really envisions us being there at the end of the year, but we all do. We don’t care about how much guys are getting paid, who we’re playing. … We have one common goal — get to the last game of the season and win it.”