ST. PETERSBURG -- Happens every year, just before the Christmas holidays: The Rays leave Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings empty-handed.

In contrast, the clubs writing the checks to land big-name free agents return home heralded for their spending. Let's see, there was the year the Yankees bought CC Sabathia, the year the Red Sox landed Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, and then last year the Angels inked Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson.

No, the chances of the Rays being referred to as "December's Team" are remote. But flash back to the fine print on Dec. 9, 2011, a day after the Angels signed Wilson to a five-year, $77.5 million contract. Back home at Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay held a news conference to announce that the club had inked left-hander Matt Moore to a five-year, $14 million deal.

Which team got the better deal? At the time, many baseball insiders agreed they would rather have had Moore on their staff than Wilson, especially considering Moore signed for $63.5 million less.

Get the idea? That's just one example of why the Rays will never be confused with "December's Team," but are frequently an "October Team."

After making the playoffs in three of the past four years, Tampa Bay once again finds itself playing significant baseball games in September. Back in 2008, the Rays were a novelty taking part in the grandest part of the baseball season; now they have become a staple. And unlike many of the teams that return to the postseason year after year, Tampa Bay has been doing it without the same players.

Check out the Rays' starting rotation in 2008: Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine.

Of that highly touted group, only Shields remains.

"It is kind of weird," Shields said.

Same thing with the lineup, where an examination of the 2008 squad reveals that Jason Bartlett, Carl Crawford, Akinori Iwamura and Dioner Navarro are gone. Carlos Pena had been gone, now he's back. But you get the idea.

"It's completely different," Shields said. "It seems like every year we're different in a different way. But that's just evolution in baseball. It's just the way baseball's been over the last four or five years, and this is what we've had to do. We've had a lot of free agents that left."

Somehow, a thread remains connecting the years under the heading of the "Rays Way."

"I think the Rays' way is a winning way," Shields said. "A lot of it has to do with the chemistry. No matter what kind of team you have, if you have chemistry coming out of Spring Training, you're going to be able to play better baseball."

According to B.J. Upton, two elements of the game make up the bulk of that seemingly continuous Rays thread: pitching and defense.

"That's our thing, and we've done it relatively well," Upton said. "It's worked in the past, so we definitely believe in it. It's kept us in it all year, and the offense has come alive the last month, also. And now things are rolling."

Parallels are a part of sports. What is similar or different between this team and that? Are the Rays experiencing another season like last season? Who can forget Tampa Bay storming back from a large deficit at the beginning of September to win a spot in the playoffs on the final day of the season?

"I think this year and last year are completely opposite," Shields said. "When you're down 11 games going into September, the odds of you making the playoffs aren't very good. We're in a little better situation than we were last year. I think right now, instead of having to win every game like we did last year, it's more or less we have to keep winning series."

Some have said that the Rays have learned how to win in September and the experience the club gained from reaching the playoffs is invaluable. Count Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon among those who don't buy into last year's run through September helping this year's team make a similar playoff push.

"Not at all," Maddon said. "I really don't believe that. The only part that helps is the fact that you know you can go out and do it. But you have to go out and play. It's different this year, and here's why I say that: Baltimore is different. Oakland's different. The way this whole thing is set up is different. There are more teams involved. There's more teams that could do what we did last year.

"I think we're confident about getting back to the playoffs. And also, we know that when things look a little bit bleak, we can still come back. But beyond that, the competition is more stringent this year than it was last year."

Alas there is great potential for some late September excitement, given the extra Wild Card team.

"Oh yeah, I think there's a chance to be even more exciting," Maddon said. "There's no telling how this is going to play out."

Just don't count out the team nobody ever seems to like in December.