Joe Maddon knew the Tampa Bay Rays needed some rest, and he was determined to make sure they kept having fun.
After a 10-game trip to Minneapolis, Seattle and Anaheim, Calif., the Rays made a cross-country flight home to play Kansas City and Oakland -- all part of a 19-game stretch with zero off days.
"At this time of year, I want us to do less work, not more work," Maddon said two weeks ago at Target Field. "I think it's about fresh minds right now, and fresh bodies help you play well. So when we go home, we're going American Legion. Seriously, I don't care which time they show up, just be ready to play."
Maddon, 58, took a page from his days playing semipro ball for the Boulder (Colo.) Collegians.
"Wayne Krenchicki would show up for that 1 o'clock game at 12:45, with a little bag, maybe Egg McMuffin or whatever," Maddon said. "He'd go out and hit a couple of bullets, make some great plays at shortstop. He showed me how to do it in 1975."
These days, Maddon's preparation is exhaustive, as his desk is usually littered with scouting reports, data and spray charts. No team employs more defensive shifts than the Rays. But the reason he's a two-time AL Manager of the Year (2008 and 2011) is his ability to get his teams to peak at the right time.
Last September, the Rays sat nine games behind the Red Sox in the wild-card race yet stormed back to pass them on the season's final day. Maddon also remembers 1995, when he was the Angels first-base coach as that team squandered a 12 1/2-game lead over the Mariners.
"So I've looked at love from both sides now, and you just go play, have fun," he said. "If you start losing the fun component, you're pretty much done."
The Rays haven't stopped enjoying themselves since they left Minnesota. Despite that travel itinerary, and despite losing their past two games to Oakland, they're still 14-5 in their past 19 games. Besides leading the wild-card race, they're breathing down the necks of the AL East-leading Yankees.
Tampa Bay is approaching its fourth postseason berth in five years, a remarkable feat for a thrifty franchise playing alongside the AL East behemoths in New York and Boston.
Thanks to David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore, Rays starting pitchers entered Saturday leading the AL with a 3.43 ERA. For comparison, the Twins were at 5.49.
General Manager Andrew Friedman has handed the Rays a new closer each of the past three years with impressive results. In 2010, Rafael Soriano notched 45 saves with a 1.73 ERA. Last year, Kyle Farnsworth had 25 saves and a 2.18 ERA, and now Fernando Rodney leads the majors with 39 saves and a 0.77 ERA.
"Almost all the credit goes to our front office and the scouting department for identifying these people," Maddon said.
The team's recent surge traces to Aug. 7, the day third baseman Evan Longoria returned from a hamstring injury that cost him three months.
Through every twist and turn, Maddon finds ways to keep things fresh. Each road trip has a different dress code. The Rays had a "Miami Vice" theme (dressing in all white) for a trip to play the Marlins, and a Beach Boys theme en route to play the Angels. Soon, Maddon plans to have each player wear his high school letterman's jacket on the road.
Imagine the high jinx. Somewhere, Wayne Krenchicki nods his approval.