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After winning the franchise's first American League pennant in 2008, Tampa Bay started last season 8-14, falling six-and-a-half games back on April 29, never fully recovering despite a summer surge, and finishing with just 84 wins.
But the Rays had remarkably little offseason turnover because, in the front office's estimation, their talent level was "better than an 84-win team last year," says executive vice president of baseball operations,
In other words, the Rays are trusting talents like
In order to regain their edge, manager
That's the noble benchmark for a durable, bullpen-saving starting rotation, at an average of 200 innings per man. It's something the Rays have never done and no AL team accomplished in 2009, though the Rays and White Sox were close, tying for the AL lead with 970.
It's a stretch because all five members of Tampa Bay's rotation are between the ages of 24 and 28, thus relatively youthful, with only Garza and
One key contributor to the team's success who's not on the organizational masthead is sports psychologist
Among his more devoted followers and adapters of his practices are Garza, Longoria and Niemann. "He's a good outlet for us, to pick that brain a little," Garza says. "We do a lot of physical training, but few times do we get to work our mental muscle."
For the pitchers, Ravizza devises breathing exercises that help the hurlers remember his three steps to pitching success: selection, location, commitment. "You can have an 85 mile-per-hour fastball, with commitment or without it, and those are two different pitches," Ravizza says. "When they've got their 'A'-game, they can just pitch. But if you want to be consistent over the duration, you have to have a good crappy day."
With apologies to outfielder
Honorable mention goes to the catcher battle between Navarro and newly-acquired
Bartlett and his wife bought a new home in Lodi, Calif., and he installed his own gym into his garage, allowing him the freedom to work out when he wanted to (though usually planned around his one-year-old son's sleeping schedule) and blast his own music. ... Price says the biggest difference for him between 2008 and '09 was that, suddenly, "Everybody expected me to do great things." Among his workout partners in Nashville were