MLB

Rays welcome heightened expectations for 2012

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)

Go ahead, pencil the Tampa Bay Rays into the playoffs again. You certainly won't upset Joe Maddon's confident bunch.

There may be teams with more star power and money, but none enters 2012 with loftier expectations than the Rays, who have earned postseason berths three of the past four seasons despite one of the major leagues' lowest payrolls.

Maddon and his players have proven they can go toe-to-toe with the big-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the rugged AL East, and they believe they have everything it takes - superior pitching, strong defense and an improved offense - to win it all this year.

''Expectations should be the fuel that we need to get this done,'' said Maddon, who guided Tampa Bay to division titles in 2008 and 2010 before erasing a nine-game deficit last September to edge the Red Sox for the AL wild-card spot on the final night of the regular season.

After reaching their first World Series, where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies four years ago, the Rays were eliminated by the Texas Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

With a projected starting rotation of James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann and rookie Matt Moore, and a lineup built around three-time All-Star Evan Longoria and bolstered by the offseason acquisitions of sluggers Carlos Pena and Luke Scott, Maddon and his players concede it would be a major disappointment to not play deep into October.

''We have all the necessary tools and pieces in place to really make an impact,'' said Pena, the franchise career home run leader, who returns after spending last season with the Chicago Cubs.

''I love the idea of raised expectations. ... It's nothing to run away from, it's a good thing,'' Maddon said.

Executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, who boosted the payroll by more than 50 percent to about $65 million, is comfortable with the attention the team has received from national media, too.

''I think our guys have gotten to the point with the culture that Joe has created in the clubhouse with our coaching staff that it's not an impediment and it's not an issue,'' Friedman said. ''It's not a risk factor that I think it might be other places.''

Maddon said a talented nucleus that includes B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings has the work ethic, maturity and resolve to not allow all the good things that are being said go to their heads.

Maddon was impressed with the number of players who participated in offseason workouts at Tropicana Field this winter and senses a commitment to do whatever it takes to ''get to the last game of the year - and win it.''

''Nobody just shows up any more. It is about winning,'' said Maddon, who's entering his seventh season with Tampa Bay, a perennial last-place team before his arrival in 2006. He signed a $6 million, three-year contract extension this winter that could keep him in the Rays dugout through 2015.

''I'm talking about a self-motivated group of people. It's at the point now, I believe - and this is the optimal point to be - where everybody does their job,'' Maddon added. ''You walk in the door. I don't have to worry about motivating so and so and so and so. They're self-starters, they're self-motivators. That's the way it should be.''

Despite struggling to score runs, the Rays won 91 games a year ago. Pitching and defense were the key, and that doesn't figure to change this season.

Shields was a first-time All-Star who finished with a team-best 16 victories and 11 complete games. Price suffered from a lack of run support and went 12-13 with a 3.49 ERA after winning 19 games in 2010, but Hellickson took up the slack by going 13-10 with 2.95 ERA to capture AL rookie of the year honors.

''We place high expectations on ourselves, but we don't really worry about what everyone's saying. We just go out there and do our thing,'' Shields said.

Tampa Bay got more than 1,000 innings out of its rotation a year ago, and Maddon is confident another 1,000-plus innings season would give the Rays an excellent opportunity to reach the playoffs again.

''Of course, they're high-end guys that can win a lot of games and pitch to a low ERA, but there's a lot of luck involved sometimes that you really can't calculate,'' the manager said. ''I like the idea of making the goal to pitch `X' number of innings as a group. If they do, then that really takes a lot of heat off the bullpen, which makes the bullpen better.''

Tampa Bay took advantage of Boston's monumental collapse last year to overcome a slow start in April and May to slip past the Red Sox for a postseason spot.

When the Rays assembled for spring training in February, Maddon stressed the importance of getting off to a better start this season.

''We prove to ourselves that we can come from behind and win ... but it's much better to do it from the other side,'' Maddon said. ''I think that's going to be paramount.''

Tagged: Rays, James Shields

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