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Losing in the ALCS to the Kansas City Royals last season has made the Toronto Blue Jays players hungry to return to the playoffs and win it all this season.Nathan Denette/The Associated Press

The visiting team's clubhouse was slow to empty that warm October night in Kansas City after the Royals plunged a dagger deep into the heart of the Toronto Blue Jays at Kauffman Stadium.

Some of players sat quietly at tables scattered throughout the room, poking absent mindedly at a postgame meal gone cold. Others nursed a beer – or several.

Earlier, the Royals had defeated Toronto 4-3 in an emotionally charged game that turned on the swift feet of Lorenzo Cain, who scored the winning run going first to home on a single to right field in the bottom of the eighth inning.

The Royals won the American League Championship Series 4-2.

In the sad aftermath within the Toronto clubhouse, Blue Jays first baseman Chris Colabello eventually found himself commiserating in a group that included Kevin Pillar, Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Goins.

And they lingered into a night that soon turned into both morning and mourning.

"I just didn't want to take my uniform off, I remember that," Colabello said earlier this week. "There was a finality in taking that uniform off and showering, and I just wasn't ready.

"A bunch of us just kind of sat there. I don't think anybody was ready for it to be done, we weren't ready for it to be finished. We felt we had so much left to offer."

The 2015 season concluded prematurely as far as the Blue Jays are concerned and the bitterness still resonates among the players.

But rather than allowing that setback to haunt them, the Blue Jays are instead using the memories as fodder for redemption this season, a campaign of unfinished business.

It is World Series or bust for this group and the long journey toward that lofty goal begins Sunday when the Blue Jays open the 162-game regular season against the hometown Tampa Bay Rays.

"What was that line from Talladega Nights?" Colabello asked. "If you ain't first you're last."

You know when a player starts to quote Ricky Bobby that the stakes are high.

"We're extremely motivated, a hungry group," said the hot-wired Marcus Stroman, Toronto's opening day starter. "And I can tell you that the mentality of this group, it's different from most teams.

"We aren't worried about last year, we're excited for this year. And everyone feels great. So we're just ready to get going."

The Blue Jays have good reason for their optimism, which some would call cocky.

The team that hammered the opposition with its offensive might in 2015 – the Blue Jays led the majors in runs scored (891), averaging 5.5 runs a game – returns mostly intact, along with an important caveat or two.

For one, Tulowitzki, the slick-fielding shortstop, will be around for a full season.

In 2015, the 31-year-old did not arrive until just before the July 31 trade deadline, along with David Price, Ben Revere and Mark Lowe. At that stage, the Blue Jays were wallowing in the AL East standings, six games back of the front-running New York Yankees.

The Blue Jays took flight after that, posting an AL-best 40-18 record to capture the East division title by six games. Toronto advanced into the postseason for the first time in 22 years, ending the longest playoff drought in professional sports.

After coming back from a 0-2 disadvantage to beat the Texas Rangers 3-2 in the AL Division Series, the Blue Jays' run was unceremoniously derailed by the Royals, who went on to win the World Series against the New York Mets.

Still, it was a stirring season, with Tulowitzki playing a huge role in the turnaround, his steadying influence at shortstop solidifying the defence. With Tulowitzki in the starting lineup, Toronto went 31-9.

With the sure-handed Ryan Goins at second base and the gravity-defying Pillar patrolling centre field like someone who has just guzzled a half-dozen energy drinks, the middle of the Toronto defence is as good as any in the majors.

"To have those guys back there it just lets you take a deep breath and be glad," Toronto pitcher R.A. Dickey said. "And that's not a knock to anybody that was here before.

"It's just you've got, you know, Tulo covers a lot of ground. We've seen what Ryan Goins can do. It's just a nice feeling and I know that will benefit me in particular because I like to pitch to contact and get a lot of ground balls."

Josh Donaldson, the AL's most valuable player, is back at third and in his prime. He will be counted on for his offence along with the big bats of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

And Michael Saunders, who missed all but nine games last season recovering from knee surgery, has enjoyed a solid spring training and appears ready to contribute in left.

"I'm pretty excited to be back with the boys and cause a little trouble," Donaldson said earlier in camp.

From a pitching perspective, although Price and his 9-1 stretch-drive record has departed through free agency to rival Boston Red Sox, the Blue Jays will have Stroman around for a full season to lead the rotation.

After missing almost the entire season recovering from knee surgery, Stroman made a triumphant return in September, going 4-0 with a 1.67 earned-run average in four starts to lead the Blue Jays into the playoffs.

He will be joined this season in the rotation by J.A. Happ, who returned to the organization as a free agent signing.

And if Happ can perform as well as he did over the last two months of last season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he went 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA, the rotation appears to be in good shape.

So does the bullpen, already solid and further bolstered by the off-season additions of Drew Storen, Jesse Chavez and Gavin Floyd in support of the likes of Brett Cecil and Roberto Osuna, who will return to his closer role.

Over all, this is an outfit that is bursting with confidence; a tight-knit group of players who believe they can reach new heights.

Colabello said the unity among the players is unique, mentioning as an example a team gathering at Bautista's home in Tampa for a Super Bowl party where the players all wore onesie jumpsuits, posting pictures on Twitter.

As Colabello spoke, an intense game of table tennis was unfolding in the back of the clubhouse between Goins and Ryan Tepera, who returns to the bullpen this season.

"The level of compete in this room is through the roof," Colabello said. "Nobody likes to be second or not first, let's put it that way."

Toronto manager John Gibbons said the prevailing sense of unbridled optimism among the players can be a difference maker.

"As far as this team, we did it last year," Gibbons said. "It's basically the same team in the most part. And we're confident going in. We expect to do something."

Dickey, who is starting his fourth season with the Blue Jays and, at 41 is one of the game's elder statesmen, said this is the most comfortable he has felt with a Toronto team coming out of spring training.

"It is a clubhouse where the mixture is such that everybody feels a freedom to be themselves within boundaries," the knuckleballer said. "And that's pretty neat. And we have a lot of momentum, too.

"It's a lot easier coming back into a clubhouse that's just won an AL East championship, and we've only lost a couple of guys. That makes for a pretty fun time in spring."

There are some issues.

Bautista is 35 and Encarnacion – who did not get into any Grapefruit League play because of health issues – is 33 and there are concerns how long they can be meaningful contributors at their age.

Also, both men are eligible to become free agents at the end of the season and it remains to be seen how their unresolved contract status might affect their play.

Still, the Jays' optimism remains sky high as they start their 40th big-league campaign.

"There's still a lot of unfinished business to do," Donaldson remarked at the start of spring training. "But at the same time, with what we did last season it makes everybody else's goals in here a lot more reasonable."