For Rays, perfect start for their high expectations
After dynamic Spring Training, World Series dreams abound for Maddon and players
ST. PETERSBURG -- As Opening Days go, none of the previous 16 was more important for the Tampa Bay Rays than Monday's.
With all the hype of a Broadway opening, the Rays came home to Tropicana Field after recording the best record in the Grapefruit League, an overture to the most promising season in the team's history.
Anything short of a complete, solid victory over American League East rival Toronto would have been a huge letdown and cast an early shadow over all soothsayers' glowing words that these Rays might not stop until they reach the World Series.
The tipoff that this was going to be special came in the first inning of the late-afternoon affair before many in the Tropicana Field sellout crowd found their seats.
Lefty David Price put the Blue Jays down in order, the beginning of his masterpiece that propelled the Rays to convincing 9-2 conquest of Toronto. A scriptwriter could not have done better.
Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner who wasn't even supposed to be wearing a Tampa Bay uniform this season, was magnificent. He allowed just six hits during his 7 1/3 innings of work, the only blemish a two-run homer by pinch-hitter Erik Kratz in the eighth inning.
So often teams play well in the Florida sunshine, then stumble when the bell rings. As the Rays put together such a complete spring, winning 16 of 23 games, the reviews were glowing. But baseball graybeards insisted none that counted once the for-real season began.
Yes, Monday's opening was just one game, but in a sense, it was there to define these Rays, who might be the most complete team in the AL this season.
So the importance of the opener was unbelievably important. And it was about as smooth and impressive as it could be.
Manager Joe Maddon, sitting behind his desk 30 minutes after the last out, was giddy. The adjectives and praise for his players flowed.
Yes, Maddon said, it was as complete as it could be.
But when I mentioned it was extremely important for Tampa Bay to have a game like this after all the expectations built on the team's Grapefruit League performance, Maddon stopped short.
"Honestly, I hate to use that it was important to have a game like this," he said, choosing his words carefully. "I just think it validates what we had done [in Spring Training].
"I never try to put any more weight on any particular game ever, especially when you're trying to manage expectations. I don't want our guys to think that way. Even under these moments when there are high expectations, it's great, but I want the guys to go out there and play the game like they're 12 years old, and I'll take what happens after that. I do not want the pressure to exceed the pleasure."
What was on display Monday was a result of hard work and what the Rays are attempting to earn this rugged 162-game season.
For Maddon, he said Opening Day was "a day of gratitude and how fortunate it is to participate in another one. Those were my thoughts leaving the house this morning driving here -- how grateful I am to be participating in this game today and to take it the next level, with this organization and this group of players."
The story has been repeatedly rehashed about how Tampa Bay attempted to trade Price during the offseason, but no deal made sense and he remains the ace of the team's multitalented pitching staff.
"It feels good to be back here," Price said after the game. "Everybody in the clubhouse knows I want to be here, and they want me to be here. This today was the definition of our team."
Price, in the first Opening Day win of his career, put the dangerous Blue Jays hitters down in order in four of the first seven innings he pitched. In the sixth inning, he needed just six pitches. And in the seventh, he needed only seven.
Considering the uncertainty of the offseason, Price was asked how important today's performance was.
"Big," he said without elaborating.
Maddon put it this way: "All this past winter, all the conjecture and going through that whole moment in the Winter Meetings, etc., it was a tough moment. I talked about that, but to have him back is really spectacular. He definitely is a trendsetter regarding attitude within the clubhouse. He goes out there totally prepared, pitches today extremely well against a really strong offensive club."
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, whose team failed after great expectations a year ago, said, "David Price is so good, one of the top in the business. That's why everybody hoped they'd have traded him.
"It's a good baseball team. They do everything right. They know how to win, expect to win and they pitch well. They have everything covered."
Evan Longoria, who singled home Wil Myers for a 1-0 lead against knuckleballer R.A. Dickey with two down in the first inning, said taking the early lead was a good sign.
"We've struggled against Dickey in the past, so it kind of set the tone for the year and to jump on a guy we have struggled with in the past was a good sign," Longoria said.
It was just the beginning, but the kind of opening the Rays wanted and needed.
They'll have ample time for encores, but they did what they had to do in Game 1.