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How the Rays can get their groove back

Don't kid yourself. This was no ordinary loss.

Seven outs from the World Series, up seven runs, in the wee hours of the morning, the Rays fell apart.

The team returned to Tropicana Field Friday shaken by the loss while their rivals, the Red Sox, brimmed with confidence and momentum.

Resolve has emerged as a new theme in this series, with the Rays facing questions about how they will bounce back and the Red Sox basking in their ability to do it over and over again.

Boston has been here before, famous for historic playoff comebacks against the Angels, the Yankees, the Indians. The team that broke a 86-year "Curse of the Bambino" by coming back down three games to none against their hated rivals, the Yankees. World champions two of the last three years.

But the Rays are, well, the Rays. They're young. Exuberant. Sort of used to losing. And, after the Game 5 collapse, they need to either rebound and win the series or face the prospect of carrying the worst label in sports -- chokers.

Athletes sometimes laugh it off, but there is big money and plenty of research in the fields of sports psychology and mental conditioning, the training of the brain to focus on the next hit, the next at-bat, the next game.

Experts and ex-ballplayers say the key is to stop thinking and just play.

"Control what you can and ignore the rest of it," says Angus Mugford, director of the mental conditioning program at IMG Academy, the exclusive training facility in Bradenton.

"It's a pretty simple mantra. But it works."

The sports campus has trained thousands of athletes to keep their eye and their mind on the ball. In classes, Mugford uses Michael Phelps' training regimen as an example.

The swimmer and his coach, Mugford says, agreed not to discuss the potential to win eight gold medals. Instead, each race was dedicated to Phelps' personal times. The race was about him, and not the other swimmers.

The great athletes are the ones, Mugford says, that do not recognize when the stakes go up. They stick to what got them there.

For one Tampa Bay player, sticking to what got him there meant sitting down to an episode of "SpongeBob SquarePants" with his children, and tuning out talk radio and SportsCenter.

"You can't go home and turn on the news and see why we made history," Cliff Floyd, the team's veteran designated hitter, told ESPN.com after the loss.

"We lost. I don't know what the hell will be on," he said, "but I hope it doesn't have anything to do with this game. I just want to go home and relax."

Ex-ballplayers say baseball is a mysterious game.

One inning you're up, the next you're down. One week you're riding a hot streak, the next you're cold as ice. Wayne Garrett knows the cycle well.

Garrett, who now lives in Bradenton, was a member of the "Amazing Mets," the 1969 team that was the original rags-to-riches baseball story.

"Sometimes you're the winner," he said. "Sometimes you're the loser. The thing about it is, you come back the next day and give it everything you've got."

But other fans are worried.

Most of the baseball world was asking how the Rays were holding up on Friday, wondering what their psyche is like going into the big game.

Psyche. It is a word that usually gets a laugh out of pitchers like James Shields, the righthander who came up with the Rays and earned the nickname "Big Game James" in the minors.

He takes the mound today in the most important game in franchise history.

"I'm from California," said Shields, before a short throwing session in the afternoon, "so I'm pretty laid back anyway. We lost. Things happen. But we're coming home and we feel pretty good about our chances."

 

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