ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – They were smiling and laughing. The Tampa Bay Rays had just lost Game 1 of the World Series, on their home turf no less, and giggles outnumbered growls.
Just one loss. It happens. No sweat.
Part of what makes the Rays such an appealing story is this attitude, laid back bordering on narcoleptic. And yet there comes a point at which relaxation runs into complacency, where one loss turns into two and then three and four, and then the inherent flaw in their thinking – espoused by Bob Marley – gets exposed: Every little thing isn't gonna be all right.
Not when you hold the opponent hitless with runners in scoring position over a baker's dozen at-bats, as the Rays did the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday night, and still lose 3-2. Gone is home-field advantage, as it was following a Game 1 loss to Boston in the American League Championship Series, and gone, too, is any notion that the Phillies would play Fido to a Rays team coming off a dramatic seven-game ALCS victory.
"We could care less," Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd said. "You can't go back and go, 'Damn, we lost.' You know, we should feel sad, or we should mope. That's not who we are.
"Why try to fake the funk?"
Funk isn't fakeable. The Rays are being themselves, and, hey, it has gotten them here, so to question it is a fool's errand. Since the start of the season, manager Joe Maddon has used the same phrase to get the Rays past their defeats: flush losses.
During the regular season, such a philosophy works. Over the course of 162 games, there will be losses, lots of them, and to hold onto one, to let it fester, is poisonous. In the postseason, though, to take a loss with such apparent insouciance borders on irresponsible, even if it is the Rays' medicine for a rebound.
"I don't think there is a such thing as being too relaxed," said Scott Kazmir, the losing pitcher. "We're not going to be nonchalant. We're not going to go out there and not really give it the effort we need to. That's out of the question."
Well, of course. And yet, isn't approaching the game without any urgency almost the same? The Rays have, at most, six games left this season. They need to win four. Already they've been in this position against the Red Sox, and it took a topsy-turvy Game 2 win and a pair of victories at Fenway Park to extract themselves from the hole. To expect the same shows plenty of conviction from the Rays.
“We could care less. You can’t go back and go, ‘Damn, we lost.’ You know, we should feel sad, or we should mope. That’s not who we are. Why try to fake the funk?”
– Rays DH Cliff Floyd.
The loss-flushing mantra has worked alongside the other Rays slogans to imbue the team with an identity it previously lacked, and with that has developed an attitude that falls somewhere between realism and fatalism.
Take, for example, the third inning. Down 2-0, the Rays loaded the bases for star center fielder B.J. Upton. He smoked a pitch from Cole Hamels right to third baseman Pedro Feliz, who started an inning-ending double play. Two inches to the right and two runs score.
"You can only hit it," Upton said. "You can't tell it where to go."
He sounded like a man sitting in the lotus position, Zen oozing from his pores. There was no use in kicking himself for that, or for his first-inning double play, or for his popout with the tying runner in scoring position in the fifth inning.
When the Rays lose, there is a reason, and they don't bother harping on it.
"Never," first baseman Carlos Peña said. "That's part of our job. Make sure we stay within ourselves and not make things bigger than they really are. It's the same ball. It's the same pitch. It's the same turf we play on. A ground ball is a ground ball today as it was in spring training."
Is a pitch in the World Series, before the entire baseball-viewing world, with a potential championship in the balance, really the same? If the Rays want to convince themselves of that, more power to them.
Deep down, they know better. The World Series is different, a monster tamed not by indifference to losses but annoyance with them. Just because the Rays turned on their televisions and played music following losses during the regular season doesn't mean it's acceptable in October.
They didn't get lucky against Boston. The Rays were the superior team, and that's the premise of how they conduct themselves here: The club that plays better will win, attitude notwithstanding. The Rays have weaned themselves from the conventional reaction to losses, and as such, their thinking is warped likewise.
"If we go up there 0-2," Kazmir said, "we're not going to feel any added pressure."
Oh, there have been situations in which the home team lost the first two games of a series and won it. The Royals did it in 1985, the Mets in '86, the Yankees a decade after that. Still, belief goes only so far.
The Rays must win tonight. They need James Shields to live up to a nickname – "Big Game" – that seems odd, seeing as this is the first year the Rays have played in any big games, and he lost both his ALCS starts. And they need Upton, Pena and Evan Longoria, a combined 0-for-12, to regain the strokes that provided a majority of the 31 runs the Rays scored among Games 2, 3 and 4 against Boston.
Most of all, they need to understand where they are. Nearly every locker inside the Rays' clubhouse holds spent champagne bottles from their past celebrations: playoff clincher and division title and division series win and ALCS victory. On one hand, they serve as reminders of the Rays' amazing season, chalices of which they should be proud.
On the other, the bottles are chains of the past at a time the Rays must embrace the present. They've climbed out of holes before, certainly, and they've fought back from deficits, and they've been rewarded time and again for never breaking from their way. That history is comfortable.
Maybe too much so.