"It would be very disappointing [if they don't win the World Series]," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Our goal on an annual basis is to play in the last game of the year and win it. ... Regardless of the payroll restrictions, whatever, we come to Spring Training on an annual basis expecting to win the division and then win the World Series."
Even though the Rays missed the 2012 postseason, the novelty of playing extra baseball has worn off after reaching the playoffs for the fourth time in the last six seasons. "Happy to be here" is not the sentiment on this year's club.
"We expect every year to do it," Desmond Jennings said. "We don't look at it any different. We expect to win games and move forward."
In 2008, when the Rays experienced their first winning season and rode that magic all the way to the World Series, every step the team took in the postseason seemed to be an exercise in keeping the dream alive. Nobody expected the Rays to be there, so any mountain climbed served as an accomplishment to be savored.
The Rays began the 2013 season with high expectations -- even after trading 200-plus innings and a winning attitude in James Shields, the team still looked great on paper.
Well, paper never seems to work out. Just ask the Nationals, whom Sports Illustrated forecast to win the World Series by beating the Rays. While the Nationals did not meet expectations, the Rays managed to join the postseason party, even though the way they got there was not exactly as forecast.
Starters David Price, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb all spent extensive time on the disabled list. Fernando Rodney struggled at times. And the offense could not seem to find any semblance of consistency.
Fortunately for the team, while the trio of starters did miss significant time, not a lot of that time overlapped. Meanwhile, their absence created an opening for Chris Archer. And he pitched well enough to be a regular in the rotation during the second half of the season and a solid Rookie of the Year candidate. The Rays also benefitted from another Rookie of the Year contender in Wil Myers, whose arrival injected some steam into the offense. Rodney remains a mystery heading into the postseason, but if he can get into a rhythm where he is used on a consistent basis, he will most likely begin to resemble the Rodney of 2012.
Based on the cyclical nature of the game, the Rays appear to be where they need to be heading into the playoffs.
The Rays began the last month of the regular season in the midst of a slump that saw the team post a 4-13 mark between Aug. 25 and Sept. 11, which made the Rays one of five teams in the Wild Card era to endure a 4-13 or worse slump in the final six weeks and still make the playoffs. But they rediscovered their groove. Monday night's win capped a furious finish that saw the team win nine of its last 11 games.
"We knew we had to win games to get to this point where we're at right now," Jennings said. "That period of losing, that wasn't planned. We just didn't get it done there for a little while. I'm glad it happened when it did. And I'm glad we had the big run before that, too. You just never know. We feel good right now going into tomorrow's game and the rest of this year."
Key additions in the form of Delmon Young and David DeJesus bolstered the offense and have given the roster its strongest overall look since the 2010 team, which was the last Rays team to claim an American League East crown. The feeling is the pieces are in place for the Rays to make a solid run to the end of the postseason.
"For sure, I feel like that," Jennings said. "We've got the top pitching in the game. And we can put together some offensive games where we're scary. You just never know. It's fun to see. We'll put some runs up early, and our pitching is there."
Maddon reiterated that his group believed it could be "that" team.
"This is a special group we've got going on right now," Maddon said. "And we're hopefully getting hot at the right moment. So it would be very disappointing [not to win the World Series]. End of the world? No. But it would be disappointing."