ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)—The Tampa Bay Rays expect to be good and have no qualms talking about it.
With a lineup featuring five All-Stars from 2009 and a young, talented pitching rotation, that’s easy to understand.
A little more than 17 months removed from their first trip to the World Series, the Rays enter Tuesday night’s season opener against Baltimore confident they have all the elements needed to compete with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the rugged AL East.
The Orioles think they’ve improved, too, though it figures to be difficult to escape last place in baseball’s toughest division—even with the offseason additions of Kevin Millwood(notes), Mike Gonzalez(notes), Garrett Atkins(notes) and Miguel Tejada(notes).
Millwood, 13-10 with a 3.67 ERA for Texas last season, gets an opening day pitching assignment for the seventh time in his career. James Shields(notes) (11-12, 4.14) takes the ball for Tampa Bay for a franchise-record third straight year.
“I think it’s important to go out and pitch well. That’s really all I have control over,” Millwood said. “It’s a big day to go out and kind of set the tone for everybody else.”
That’s exactly what Tampa Bay feels it did by compiling the best spring training record in the majors at 20-8-2.
While that doesn’t guarantee regular-season success, the Rays note they also had the best spring mark two years ago before making an improbable run to their first AL pennant. The Yankees did it a year ago, and wound up winning their first World Series title in nine years.
“It’s always good to get used to winning,” said manager Joe Maddon, who stresses the importance of teams playing in March with the same intensity as they do during the regular season.
“I don’t ever want us to play with an on and off switch. This whole camp we’ve been playing with the switch on. I anticipate we’ll go into this season with the switch on. I believe our guys believe that, as a group, we’re a pretty good ballclub and, as a group, we need to play the game as we perceive it to be the right way.”
The Rays won 84 games a year ago, yet considered their second consecutive winning season a major disappointment because they fell short of repeating as AL champions.
“It’s my firm belief that we were better than an 84-win team last year,” said executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, whose top priority this winter was improving an inconsistent bullpen.
“It was a strange year in that it felt like it was multiple seasons. We never really got on that sustained run of success that I felt like we had the talent to do.”
After winning the AL East two years ago, Tampa Bay finished 19 games behind the Yankees and 11 behind the second-place Red Sox in the division race last season—gaps Maddon believes the team can close by doing a better job at the “little things” that make a difference between winning and losing.
That includes tightening an already solid defense, hitting better in certain situations and playing better on the road, while maintaining its domination at Tropicana Field, where the Rays have the second-best record in baseball (109-53) over the past two seasons.
Another point of emphasis during spring training was getting off to a fast start. Going 9-14 in April dumped the Rays into a hole from which they never truly escaped, and a season-high 11-game losing streak in early September eliminated any hopes for a strong stretch run.
The Rays struggled to maintain leads last season, in part because of the absence of a regular closer.
“We just had so many issues at the back end of the bullpen, and it wasn’t even the personnel. It was just the injuries. We were so plagued by injuries last year,” Longoria said. “I think having him there and just the threat in other teams’ minds that we have a closer now … that’s going to be a huge boost for us.”
Two-time All-Star second baseman Brian Roberts(notes) will be in Baltimore’s lineup and batting leadoff despite being limited to 19 at-bats during spring training because of a herniated disk in his back.
Tejada begins his second stint with the Orioles, making the transition from shortstop to third base. Atkins has taken over at first base, while Gonzalez was signed to anchor Baltimore’s bullpen.
“I think there is a lot of positive energy in our clubhouse. I think there is a lot of anticipation,” manager Dave Trembley said. “I have a good feeling about the team that we have. A bunch of guys that want to win.”
AP Sports Writer Dave Ginsburg in Baltimore and AP freelance writer Mark Didtler in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.