It’s hard to make the playoffs in baseball. Just win your division, sure; but what if you’re in a division with a historically-dominant team? Then you win the wildcard–but what if there’s a second historically-dominant team in your division?
Then you’re the Tampa Bay Rays.
They were left for dead at the beginning of the season. They were sellers at the deadline. They’re (probably) not going to make the playoffs. But what the Rays have done this year is one of the most remarkable stories of the 2018 season.
After a 2017 season that was mediocre by every definition of the word, Tampa Bay spent the offseason building a contender…for the number one draft pick. Team home run leader Logan Morrison elected free agency, and the Rays made little effort to resign him. Steven Souza Jr. was offloaded to the Diamondbacks; Corey Dickerson to the Pirates. Most shocking was the departure of franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria, spirited across the country in a drive build a younger, cheaper roster (never mind the fact that OLD MAN DENARD SPAN was part of the package coming back to Tampa in return).
Morrison, Souza Jr., Dickerson, and Longoria combined for 308 runs in 2017. That made up nearly half of all the runs Tampa Bay scored that season.
Forgive us for thinking that CJ Cron’s .250 batting average wasn’t going to be a suitable replacement.
It feels like Tampa Bay has been at or around .500 since the dawn of time; this year was no different. At the end of April, they were 13-14. At the end of May, they were 28-27. Meanwhile, the Boston Red Sox surged under new manager Alex Cora, and the Mauler’s Row of Judge, Stanton, and Sanchez (and somehow Didi Gregorius?) clobbered opponents into submission as the Red Sox and Yankees charged to the top of the AL East.
The Rays were sellers again at the deadline. All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos went north to Philadelphia. Staff ace Chris Archer went to Pittsburgh. Tampa Bay’s depth chart looked like a minimalist painting.
But along the way, something interesting was happening. In their mid-May series against the Angels, Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash announced that Sergio Romo would start one of the games. Career closer Sergio Romo….was going to start….wait, what?
Bullpens have been gaining in importance for years now, as managers try to play match-ups and limit the innings on their starters’ arms. Cash simply took the evolution to the next step, letting his bullpen carry the load for all nine innings rather than receiving the baton from the starter. Injuries may have also forced his hand; at one point Archer was the only starter listed on the depth chart.
The craziest part of the “opener” wasn’t its unconventionality; it was its success. Throughout the summer, after instituting the “opener,” the Rays pitching staff had the best staff ERA in all of baseball. They were better than the dominant Astros starting rotation, the four-headed monster in Cleveland, and the 300-million-dollar men in Boston. They’re still in the top-3 in pitching ERA on the season.
For all the new school ideas about bullpenning, the offense looks decidedly archaic. They don’t rely on home runs. The Rays are all about moving the line and playing small ball. They’re in the top-5 in both on-base percentage and stolen bases. They won’t bludgeon a team to death, but they just keep hitting.
Along with the unconventionality came happy surprises. CJ Cron has swatted 27 dingers on the season. Speedster Mallex Smith has finally taken the next step, upping his batting average over .300 and his OBP to .372. Deadline acquisition Tommy Pham has looked more like the MVP candidate he was a season ago, with a slash line of .314/.412/.510 since moving to the Trop. Blake Snell has become a legitimate Cy Young contender, striking out over 200 batters and holding opposing hitters to a measly .179 average. They have a beautiful man-child of a player named Ji-Man Choi, who’s walk-off celebrations deserve their own wing in Cooperstown.
The Rays are the prototypical underdogs, the lovable losers of the 2018 season. There’s just one difference: they don’t lose. They’ve gone 13-3 in September, after an August where they went 17-10.
The Rays have taken pieces off the scrap heap and made a Monet. And for all that, they’ll get…nothing. They’ll be just like the rest of us in October, sitting at home with a beer in hand watching the Red Sox or the Astros or the Cubs or the Yankees hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy.
They won’t be remembered as champions. But they should be remembered as the best of baseball in 2018.