ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — — Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has seen quite enough of the rejuvenated Orioles over the past year, but he said Wednesday that he fully expects to see them playing meaningful games in September again this season.
"I'm here to tell you that they aren't going away this year," Maddon said. "People are predicting the demise of Baltimore. That's absurd as far as I'm concerned."
That behind-enemy-lines assessment came a couple of hours before the Rays staged a big late-inning offensive outbreak to even the season-opening series with a walk-off 8-7 victory over the Orioles at Tropicana Field.
Keep in mind that the Rays and Orioles have become something of a mutual admiration society over the past couple of years. Maddon still has a soft spot for the team that bounced the Boston Red Sox out of the American League wild-card race in favor of his Rays on the final night of the 2011 season. The Orioles make no secret of their respect for the way the Rays have proved that it's possible to compete year in and year out with the big-money beasts of the AL East with great player development and strong team chemistry.
This particular conversation started after Maddon was apprised of some complimentary comments that Orioles center fielder Adam Jones made about his team after the Orioles' hard-fought victory on Opening Day.
"With them boys, they come out hacking," Jones said. "They never give in. They never give up. The way Maddon manages is unbelievable. And their players ... similar to us. We go out there and they go out there, and they give it their all until that last out is made."
Now, you could probably make the case that a lot of teams play hard and play the game right, but Jones was referring to the high level of competition that has developed between the two teams in the division who can't just spend their way to the top of the standings. You might even call it a cut-rate rivalry, except that everybody knows that the only AL East rivalry anybody cares about is between the Yankees and Red Sox. (Sarcasm alert!)
"I think it's because they respect the way we play the game as we respect the way they play the game," Maddon said. "I think it's about as healthy of a — I don't want to say rivalry — but it is kind of like a rivalry that's building between both of us, because they want what we want and vice versa. This year, to try to be the wild card out of this division is going to be very difficult, so you've got to go out there and try to win this thing."
The Rays, by virtue of their strong pitching staff, have gotten plenty of respect from the experts heading into the 2013 season. The Orioles have gotten mixed previews after a magical season that included some hard-to-replicate statistics.
"I just feel an energy," Maddon said. "I'm into feel. I'm into what I feel, and I feel that when you're playing these guys. What they did last year in extra innings and in one-run games was abnormal. However, they earned the right to be abnormal last year by the way they played. That's what they've grown into. They deserve the respect. It's not easy to play them right now."
The same goes for the Rays. Third baseman Evan Longoria put on a defensive show in the season opener that got him a whole lot of "SportsCenter" love, but the Orioles erupted for five runs in the seventh inning to score a comeback victory. On Wednesday night, the Rays appeared to fall victim to a strong performance by Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen and another monster mash by first baseman Chris Davis, but they don't play the victim any better than the Orioles. They rallied from four runs down with four runs in the sixth and three more in the seventh before Matt Joyce won the game with a homer in the ninth.
Buck Showalter isn't much for comparisons, but he doesn't mind this one. The Orioles and Rays have become too close for comfort.
"That would be a great compliment to us if that was the case,'' Showalter said. "Tampa has been a consistent and competitive winning club for a long time. We haven't gotten to their level of consistency yet. They've kind of shown the way in a lot of ways. They say the greatest form of flattery is imitation. If that's the case, I'm OK with doing some of the things that they do. I enjoy the competition. I don't enjoy playing them, but I enjoy the competition because it's pretty pure."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.Orioles Insider | Live scores | Photos | Baseball app