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01/22/09 10:00 AM EST

Rays out to prove 2008 was no fluke

Improved offense, returning staff have skipper feeling confident

Joe Maddon heard it every step of the way as his Tampa Bay Rays were stunning the baseball world with a seemingly out-of-nowhere 97-win season, the American League East title and a World Series appearance in 2008.

"Are you guys for real?"

The manager repeatedly attempted to convince his team of this during Spring Training, even following a 2007 campaign that saw Tampa Bay finish with the worst record -- 66-96 -- in all of baseball.

But as the 2008 season and the Rays steamed along, the reasons for their success became more and more evident.

The young rotation -- buoyed by James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine -- and the bullpen -- with breakout stars J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour -- contributed to a team ERA of 3.82, second best in the AL.

The defense -- led by the rock-solid middle of catcher Dioner Navarro, shortstop Jason Bartlett, second baseman Akinori Iwamura and center fielder B.J. Upton -- was much improved, finishing tied for second in the AL with a .985 club fielding percentage.

And the offense -- powered by exciting sluggers such as first baseman Carlos Pena and rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, speedy stalwart Carl Crawford and key role players Gabe Gross, Ben Zobrist and Willy Aybar -- was good enough, scoring 774 runs for an average of 4.78 per game.

"When you look at what we did, we did it for an entire season," Maddon said. "For us, winning the AL East was very significant. Our group had to be very good and very confident for a whole season to pull something like that off with the Red Sox and Yankees [in the same division]. And let's not forget that the Blue Jays had a pretty good year, too."

It's for these reasons that Maddon insists the Rays are not a one-year wonder, although it's reasonable to suspect the team might suffer a bit of a letdown in 2009. After all, a recent past performance by a similar team -- the Colorado Rockies -- went drastically awry last year.

Everyone remembers the feel-good Rockies' run to end the 2007 season. They won 21 of their last 22 and swept two playoff series before bowing out to the Red Sox in four games in the World Series.

But a few debilitating, poorly timed injuries and disappointing performances by key young players led to a less-than-pedestrian 74-88 record.

Colorado manager Clint Hurdle refused to blame 2008 on injuries, and he admitted after the season that the club might have been a tad complacent after experiencing a brief stint on baseball's grandest stage.

"I'm not saying anybody took anything for granted," Hurdle said, "but I do know how hard we worked collectively as an organization on the baseball side of it on the field.

"And after six years of pushing and prodding and battling and scratching, I think he we all just went, 'Whew.' But any time you relax, like in a tug of war, you lose your grip and you lose ground."

Padres manager Bud Black, who sees a lot of the Rockies and used to coach alongside Maddon when the two were in the Angels organization, says he doesn't see the Rays dropping off the radar as quickly as Colorado did.

"I think the stabilizing force that should remain is the starting pitching," Black said. "As long as they stay healthy, I see Kazmir coming into his own, I see Shields coming into his own, I see Garza improving and [David] Price jumping into that rotation and making an impact. I think that's where it starts.

"Last year, the Rays pitched well. Their bullpen was very solid -- Howell, [Dan] Wheeler, Balfour, [Troy] Percival when healthy. That's where it started. When you don't pitch well, you're not going to win, and last year, they pitched well."

Maddon likes to point out that fact while also emphasizing that the Rays didn't exactly tear the cover off the ball in 2008. Tampa Bay finished 13th of 14 teams in the AL in batting with a .260 team average, and its 774 runs ranked eighth.

That's the main reason the Rays traded Jackson to the Tigers for outfielder Matt Joyce and then inked free-agent slugger Pat Burrell to a two-year, $16 million deal that will give him the majority of the at-bats at designated hitter.

"What we did last year could not have been accomplished without our defense becoming about as good as it possibly could be and for our pitching to get close to as good as it could be," Maddon said. "Offensively, I don't think we were at the level that we were capable of. Adding Burrell should really help in that regard, and our young guys will hopefully continue to improve.

"But I still say that pitching drives the whole thing. If you don't have it, you won't play in the last game of the season. And not to demean the Rockies in any way, but they weren't as consistent over the course of a whole season as we were.

"They also don't have to play in the American League East."

And that might be the biggest challenge for the Rays of 2009. With the Yankees having picked up starters CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira, and with the Red Sox, whom the Rays barely outlasted in a seven-game AL Championship Series, looking as strong as ever, it looks even tougher for Tampa Bay than it was in 2008.

"The Yankees got a lot better in the offseason; Boston should be better; Toronto looks like a very good club, in my opinion; and Baltimore got getter, too," Maddon said. "But I like our chances."

Maddon said the experience of winning and the value of playing in a World Series should go a long way toward convincing the Rays that they're no fluke, that they do belong with the best teams in baseball and that, yes, once again, they will be for real.

"I was really proud of the way our guys handled themselves throughout the whole season and the playoffs," Maddon said.

"It's a growth process, and they came through it with great team chemistry and great attitudes. They showed they're ready to have these types of expectations every year."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.