"I think playing baseball like we did for a couple of months after that probably adds to it a little bit because we know with this team, not just what they were capable of, but what they had the ability to do."
The Rays left Spring Training with the look of a champion. On paper, there seemed to be no holes. But injuries bit the team hard, early, when they lost Matt Moore for the season due to Tommy John surgery, and Alex Cobb for an extended period due to an oblique injury.
On June 10, the Rays had the worst record in baseball -- by four games -- at 24-42 (including a 1-14 stretch) and nothing seemed to be working. The offense ranked 28th in runs scored per game and the staff ERA ranked 22nd. That ineffectiveness by the starters had a residual effect on the bullpen that led the Major Leagues in innings pitched at that juncture.
In short, the easiest tact for the team would have been to quit and look toward 2015. The 2014 Rays did not.
From June 11 through Aug. 15, the Rays began to click, posting the Major Leagues' best record over that period at 37-19. Complementing the run were offensive and pitching improvements, fueling the team's hopes for making the postseason.
Never was that feeling stronger than when the Rays reached .500 at 61-61 on Aug. 15. Unfortunately, the energy spent trying to arrive at the even point could not be maintained.
"You utilize a lot of mental energy as much as anything to get yourself back [in] there," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "And it's not easy to do that. You get back there and you have to maintain this real high level of success on a professional level against professionals. So it's not easy to do. But I really thought we could. I never thought that we could not.
"And all of a sudden we were on the verge of pulling it off. We got back to .500 and since then it's just been teetering back and forth. Just could not get back to that level of play that we had going on for a long time. It's not easy to do. I understand that."
Since first reaching the postseason in 2008, the Rays have strung together six consecutive winning seasons and they've twice won the AL East. So the hope is that this year's season is an aberration.
"None of us like the fact we are not winning the division," Maddon said. "It's the goal, it's going to be the goal every year. We feel like we can do it. We thought we could do it this year. And in spite of all of this, again, just a really bad awkward moment. ... We get into this 1-14 stretch and all of a sudden it's really difficult. But I give our guys a lot of credit. They continued to play hard."
While Maddon, Sternberg, Rays fans and Rays players don't like how the season will finish, the effort level never came into question.
"Watching our guys, I've been really pleased and impressed with the attitude of our players," Maddon said. "In spite of having to come back from a pretty large deficit."
Maddon allowed that some sweet forecasts are destined to turn sour.
"It just happens," Maddon said. "It's nobody's fault. It's just the way this things rolls sometimes. You try to be the best every year. Obviously, it's hard to do.
"I would want to believe we'll reflect on [what happened in 2014] and really never let it happen again, and never let it happen in the next 10 years or so. Get back on that division-winning horse. Because that's our goal every year."
As for moving forward, Sternberg said "forward is easy."
"Thankfully, [the 2014 season is] an odd place for us to be. A September when games are less meaningful than they have been in the past."