After everything goes right, Rays trying to stay grounded in moment

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — In baseball, great expectations can be a burden to bear. They can hint at deep runs and 90-plus-win seasons and champagne burning the eyes on crisp October nights that become warm, wonderful mornings.

But there was Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon leaning near his dugout Monday afternoon at Tropicana Field, preaching patience for the moment. His voice was serious.

"You take care of the seconds — the minutes, the hours and the days will take care of themselves," he said. "And I really want our guys to approach it in that manner. It’s not psychobabble. It’s just the way we should all handle our days."

This will be the Rays’ challenge in the days ahead, when all the ink and pixels forecasting their rise to the top of the American League East dry and fade into history. Days like Monday — when they throttled the Toronto Blue Jays 9-2 and so much went right before a sellout crowd — make all the predictions from coast to coast seem possible. There’s innocence to Opening Day, a childlike wonder to the pomp and pageantry that gives life to big dreams.

But it’s Tampa Bay’s job to live in the moment March through October, to exist for the now, to prevent hope from becoming a hindrance.

Rays vs. Blue Jays

"Obviously, everybody could have hit a home run," Rays designated hitter Matt Joyce said. "But for us, that’s exactly how we want to start."

Yes, the Rays’ goal is no secret to many, and anyone who has spent more than five minutes reading or watching previews dedicated to Maddon’s team understand the mission. The target is at least the ALCS, likely more, for a roster that includes the return of left-hander David Price and first baseman James Loney. Others like right-hander Alex Cobb, third baseman Evan Longoria, right-fielder Wil Myers and more will contribute as well. The helping hands are many.

The Rays have entered their season of hype. Opening Day played to the script. Opening Day offered no reason to think otherwise. Opening Day fed the wonder.

Where to begin?

"Yeah, it was good," Myers said. "Pitching, bullpen, our offense. Defense."

Pitching: Price was stellar. He allowed just two runs and six hits, baffling Blue Jays hitters for most of his 102 pitches while striking out six in 7 1/3 innings. Erik Kratz’s eighth-inning, two-run home run to center field was Price’s lone blemish.

Offense: Tampa Bay made right-hander R.A. Dickey look silly. The former National League Cy Young Award winner had little bite on his knuckleball, which meant many of his offerings were fit for batting practice. He allowed six runs and five hits in five innings, and the Rays scored in all but one frame when he pitched.

Defense: There was no reason for alarm. The afternoon began with a diving catch by Desmond Jennings in center field that robbed Jose Reyes of a possible double. The Rays had no errors to the Blue Jays’ two.

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"We’ve been doing it for a while now," Price said. "It just doesn’t start on Opening Day. This is similar to the way we’ve been playing all spring training. This isn’t spring training anymore, but it’s a continuation of it. We used spring training to get that winning feeling in our clubhouse, and we definitely had that winning feeling winning the Grapefruit League the way we did."

The winning feeling has become the Rays’ way. There’s danger in great expectations, of course. To the unwise, they can harm. To the unfocused, they can distract. To the undisciplined, they can derail.

Many within the Rays know this. Maddon, for one. That’s why he has preached the mantra, "Don’t let the pressure exceed the pleasure."

He enjoys entertaining tomorrow’s dreams. But he wants to prevent the present from becoming a beast of its own.

"So at the end of the day, it’s always about how you process the moment," Maddon said. "At the end of the day, it’s how you view it. So from my perspective, I’d prefer having a lot of expectations to none. Then after that, how do you manage that? You manage that on a daily basis. You manage that by playing the game."

The game Monday, the first of 162 in this quest, served as the Rays’ promise in action. There was Price looking like the lethal threat all in the AL know him to be. There was the Rays’ defense keeping the Blue Jays scoreless until the eighth, when the result was long decided. There was their offense knocking around an accomplished pitcher, the RBI coming from Joyce (three) and Myers (two) and Loney (one) and Longoria (one).

The postgame celebration was familiar. Loud thumps were heard in the clubhouse. Voices hollered. Instruments played. They popped the cork on 2014.

The year is different. The expectations are larger. But this moment made the Rays timeless.

"That was pretty nicely done," Maddon said from his office.

The coming months can lead anywhere. These high-potential Rays will decide their destination. But in these early minutes, these early hours, Opening Day took care of itself.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.