Don't stop believing: Maddon never lost faith
After rough start to season, Rays back to playing their style of baseball
Rays manager Joe Maddon called a team meeting a few weeks ago, which is fairly significant news in itself. Maddon doesn't believe in team meetings. What's there to say anyway? As he has said many times, players know what they're supposed to do in terms of professionalism, effort, etc.
To call a meeting to tell the guys to hang in there and play hard actually is kind of insulting. Do you think David Price and Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist know the drill? So why waste their time?
The Rays do have postgame gatherings to celebrate victories. Did I use the word "gathering?" I actually meant "mini-riot." These little parties are brief and intense. They're also a reminder that winning is a cool thing and should never be taken for granted.
After the Rays won the American League Wild Card Game in Cleveland last October, Maddon stuck his head out of a loud, wet celebration and said, "I'll be out in a minute. I just want to make sure we appreciate this moment."
Who wouldn't want this guy as a boss? Maddon trusts his guys to do the right thing. On the first day of Spring Training, he lays out a couple of rules:
1. Run hard to first base.
2. Play defense.
How brilliant is that? If you think about it, good baseball flows from those two things. Simple game, huh?
Maddon is the No. 1 reason Tampa Bay has become a place where players want to be. He's not the only reason, but he's at the top of the list.
As a former Ray, Cubs reliever Wesley Wright, said, "The Rays put the focus on you doing your job and what you can do to help the team win. You're not told what you can't do. You're not given a bunch of rules just for the sake of having rules."
Still, things were going so badly for the Rays recently that Maddon did feel the need to say a few words to the group. When the Rays were 3-8 in 2011, he handed out plastic shot glasses on the team plane and toasted "the best 3-8 team in the history of baseball."
The Rays went on an 88-63 run after that toast. This time, though, Maddon had a couple of things to get off his chest.
"I just want you guys to know I like what I'm seeing," he said. "We're doing things right. Things are going to shift our way."
At the time, the Rays had the worst record in baseball. They bottom out -- at least they hope it was the bottom -- when they were 18 games below .500 at 24-42.
Some of it could be explained by injuries. Three starting pitchers have spent time on the disabled list. Others -- second baseman Ben Zobrist, shortstop Yunel Escobar and others -- have missed time as well.
But the real problem was not quantifiable. The Rays were losing games they normally win. A franchise that prides itself on not giving away outs, on making all the routine plays and not doing dumb stuff, had trouble with both those things.
Maddon simply wanted his guys to understand that he still believed in them and that he knew it eventually would turn around. Remember, this is the team some of us thought might be the best in baseball in 2014.
Maddon never stopped believing that there'd be a return to normalcy and that when the Rays got going, they had a chance to sprint back into contention.
Around the time of that meeting, that's exactly what happened. The Rays have won 14 of 21 as they begin a weekend series in Detroit. Their rotation -- led by David Price, Chris Archer and Alex Cobb -- has been terrific. Their defense is back, too. And, finally, they're getting hits at the right time.
Suddenly, everything has changed, and even though they're still 11 games under .500, even though they're still in last place in the AL East and 9 1/2 games behind the Blue Jays, the Rays think there's hope.
In this 14-7 stretch, they've been exactly who they were supposed to be, scoring 4.5 runs per game (from 3.58 before this stretch) and compiling a 2.98 ERA (compared to 4.08).
They've got six rookies on the roster, including outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who has 36 hits and seven home runs in his first 39 games. Logan Forsythe, acquired from the Padres, has played first, short and the outfield and is hitting .429 during the 14-7 stretch.
So if you look at them now, you see a team that might be as good as any in baseball. Suddenly, the idea that Price will be traded for a bundle of prospects has been put on the back burner.
Price could still be dealt -- and so could Zobrist and others -- but the Rays want to let the thing play out and see if they can get themselves back into contention by the July 31st non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Can they play their way back into contention? They began Thursday with the second-worst record in the AL even after going 14-7. They have nine teams to pass just to get one of the two AL Wild Card berths.
If the Mariners (47-38) go, say, 40-37 the rest of the way, the Rays would have to go 49-22 to catch them. On the other hand, that kind of math makes no sense.
It made no sense when the Rays went 21-5 last July or when they had a 19-9 run in 2012. All they can do is start playing, get back to .500 and go from there. Maddon never stopped believing in his guys. Now it's a little easier for the rest of us to join him.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.