ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It was Opening Day in MLB on Monday, which translates into Groundhog Day for the Tampa Bay Rays.
You’ve heard this plenty of times before: Scrappy team with the best manager in the game, competing with the big boys from New York and Boston despite a budget-conscious payroll and a domed home field labeled an aesthetic dump.
Despite the claustrophobic feel of Tropicana Field, the Rays are once again selling sunshine — along with smiles and scores of victories — in 2014. It started on late Monday afternoon against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The 9-2 victory had a lot of Rays’ DNA.
Good pitching? David Price pitched a methodical 7 1/3 innings with six hits, two earned runs and six strikeouts on 102 pitches.
Defense? Center fielder Desmond Jennings made a nice stab of a sinking line drive from leadoff hitter Jose Reyes in the first.
Joe Maddon’s crafty managerial touch? Let’s save that for another day, although Maddon would much prefer the Monday afternoon vibe of hanging back and enjoying the action.
He was asked whether this could have gone any better.
“I can’t imagine,” Maddon said.
Amen, Price agreed.
“We’ve been doing this for a while now,” the winner said. “That’s what we do: pitching and defense.”
It’s a concept familiar to Rays fans, along with the static noise at the Trop, a place that could confuse the occasional fan into thinking they’ve walked in on a rave. Everything is LOUD, much of it manufactured noise in the day and age where bells and whistles are necessary elements of the “entertainment experience.”
The problem with that marketing plan is that the Rays don’t need any stinkin’ props. The Ray Way has methodically produced six consecutive winning seasons and four postseason appearances. That’s rarified air, with only the Phillies and Yankees hitting those marks.
The Rays also have won 550 games over the past six seasons, the most of any team except the Yankees.
“We think we’re good,” Maddon said. “Now it’s up to us to go out and prove it.”
Price, the 2012 Cy Young winner, definitely takes them to another level. He recently avoided arbitration by signing a $14-million one-year deal that will keep him in a Rays uniform for a while. But it will not be without the nagging feeling from fans that they’ve seen this movie before. Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and James Shields were big-time pitchers traded by the Rays, reflecting the fiscal handcuffs of a small-market team.
Despite going on a bit of a “splurge” to keep Price, the Rays’ payroll of $77 million is 28th out of 30 teams in MLB, only better than the Miami Marlins and the Houston Astros.
But even that number is a stretch for the Rays. Executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has called his payroll “unsustainable” but focused on a short-term goal of winning a World Series.
It’s the one thing the Rays lack on their resume.
It’s the reason Price is back in the lineup for at least another year.
Game One went splendidly. The hope is that the next 161 games will be pretty much the same for the Rays: rely on those scrappy fundamentals, coupled with good pitching, to stay competitive in the AL East.
It’s easily the toughest division in baseball, with four strong lineups featuring the Rays, Yankees, Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles.
Despite their success, the Rays are trying to overcome an extreme case of fan apathy. Although Monday’s crowd of 31,042 was a sellout, the numbers are expected to slide dramatically in the next few days.
The team averaged just 18,646 fans per game in 2013. The Rays were the only team with an average attendance below 19,000 per game.
There has been talk of a collaborative effort to build a new stadium, with prospective sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
Regardless of where they call home in the near future, the Rays will definitely make some noise in 2014.
That’s a good thing. You’ll just need to bring earplugs for all the excess static noise at the Trop.