ST. PETERSBURG -
Spring training went on so long that Luke Scott got hurt twice. Then again, Roberto Hernandez came in named Roberto Hernandez and left named Roberto Hernandez, so maybe it wasn't so long after all. Wonder what the Rays will be called at the end of this season. The formula hasn't changed. The formula never will. But there's one thing. “Close isn't good enough,” Ben Zobrist said. This afternoon the lads play the first of a scheduled 162, against Baltimore at the Trop. This team expects more than 162. The Rays won 90 times last season, and walked away as if they'd won 70. It wasn't good enough. They remain an amazing story, the small-market franchise that has beaten baseball's house odds five seasons running, with a pitching staff center-pieced in Sports Illustrated. There must be plenty of organizations sick of hearing about the Ray Way, fingernails on a blackboard, as if the Rays are always the smartest guys in the room. They might note that the smartest guys in the room haven't won a playoff series since 2008. The Orioles made the playoffs last season. The Rays didn't. Funny, but the Rays notice, too. “We haven't won a World Series yet, so what you do up to that point really doesn't matter,” Rays Opening Day starter and reigning AL Cy Young winner David Price said. Close isn't close enough. “Sometimes it's never enough until you win a championship,” Evan Longoria said. The formula hasn't changed: Pitching, fielding pitching, some hitting, pitching and pitching. That's not changing. Nor is the tightness of wallet. “I'm surprised people haven't come to understand that after five years,” Rays manager and dream weaver Joe Maddon said. “It's who we are and it's who we're going to be.” There were no star-shaped free agent signings, shocking, just more bargain-store puzzle pieces to try and make this batting order more watchable and the infield defense better, names like Escobar and Loney and Johnson and hope for the best. That's the way it's going to be, folks, again, always a thin margin. The formula's main ingredient: that steady stream of arms, that line of secession, already envisioning the day when Price needs Verlander money. To me, the AL East used to be made of a few menacing certainties, like the Red Sox and Yankees' Tyrannosaurus lineups. The new AL East certainty, No. 1 in the power rankings, is Rays pitching. Now it goes up against the SI jinx. “It makes us feel good. It does,” Price said. “I don't feel like we get a lot of the respect that we deserve, especially what we do in this division, with all the hype that everybody gets over their lineups and stuff like that. For us … we mowed through that last year in the AL East, we absolutely did, and I'm not scared to say that. We handled the AL East extremely well last year.” The formula, and payroll, also demands routine subtraction, such as the loss or workhorse James Shields and sometimes spectacular B.J. Upton, though Longoria, speaking Monday, said that this team might be more cohesive despite those losses. Don't know where that came from, the eve of Opening Day and all, but 3 must be feeling it. And he's not alone. “We just have the pieces,” Price insisted. Again, there are no guarantees for the Ray way working this season. But what way guarantees anything? Look at the Angels, who missed the playoffs even with Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. There's no guarantee the Toronto Blue Jays will run amok with their talent, any more than the Marlins did last season with some of that very same talent. No matter. Close isn't close enough. “We've raised that expectation,” Zobrist said. “We want it that way. If we don't, we've set our sights too low. … It all has to fit together. Everything on paper seems right. But spring training is spring training. And this was a long spring training. We need real games.” They need to get closer than close.