PHILADELPHIA — They turned around one of the game's sorriest franchises, turned on a community that hadn't been very interested and, with three more wins, would have turned their amazing run into a World Series championship.
Before they turn their attention to the new season that starts Monday in Boston, we asked the Rays to look back one last time and share what they will remember most from last season's dramatics, the moment or the memory that will be most enduring, and most endearing.
Manager Joe Maddon spoke for many and, typically as loquacious as they come, needed just five words to sum it up: "Ground ball to second base."
That, of course, was the ground ball Boston's Jed Lowrie hit off David Price with a man on and two outs in the ninth of Game 7 of the AL Championship Series, the one that Akinori Iwamura snagged despite a bad hop and raced to touch second for the final out, the one that sent the Rays to the World Series and launched a massive celebration at Tropicana Field.
"I almost died from the excitement," first baseman Carlos Peña said. "When I say that, literally my heart was pounding so hard I thought it was going to come out of my chest, it really was.
"That was such a cool feeling to be so joyful. Uncontrollably joyful. Genuinely joyful, from the inside out. I cannot even describe that feeling. That was such an incredible time. When Aki touched second base, that was, wow, euphoria."
For so many of the players, from veteran Carl Crawford to rookie Evan Longoria, and team officials, that was the moment they'll remember most.
"Obviously standing on the foul line at the beginning of the World Series is a great honor, and I definitely had the chills, no doubt about it," pitcher James Shields said. "But the intensity level and the stress and the excitement we went through in Game 7, and the dogpile afterward, was unbelievable."
Executive vice president Andrew Friedman called it "a surreal moment" and said he "took a few minutes to take it all in before celebrating myself."
Reliever Grant Balfour still thinks about racing in from the bullpen to join the pile. Infielder Willy Aybar said he "still gets emotional when he thinks about it." Crawford considers it "one of the biggest moments of my life."
In the radio booth, Andy Freed found himself nearly breathless. Partner Dave Wills, who made the memorable call, "This improbable season has another chapter to it," had sore hands from clenching his fists so much.
PR director Rick Vaughn, a veteran of more than 25 years in pro sports, was staggered by the raw emotion: "Just watching our players turn into joyful little kids — my eyes water every time I think about it."
And that wasn't the only thing they remember:
July 18, Tropicana Field
Win over Toronto to snap seven-game losing streak
"Ben Zobrist's home run vs. A.J. Burnett giving the Rays a 2-1 win. … There are not many teams that lose eight, nine or 10 games in a row and get into the postseason, much less the World Series. When they won that game, I was convinced they could win the whole thing."
Dewayne Staats, longtime TV broadcaster
Sept. 20, Tropicana Field
Win over Minnesota that clinched playoff berth
"When Longo caught the ball (for the final out) against Minnesota. Joe Mauer was hitting. I remember like it was yesterday. Trever Miller was pitching. Fastball inside."
C Dioner Navarro
"We all knew we were so close, but you just don't think it's going to happen. You think that everything's been going so good for so long that our luck has to end pretty soon, but it didn't. He caught that ball, we ran on the field and it hit me: 'Wow, we're playing in October. That's guaranteed.' "
LHP Scott Kazmir
"That was such a big moment for everybody: the rushing the field, the celebration, everything about it."
OF Gabe Gross
June 5, Fenway Park
Brawl against Red Sox
"There was the fight, and after the fight we all came together as a team. That was a pretty special moment for me."
2B Akinori Iwamura
Sept. 26, Comerica Park, Detroit
Clinching AL East title after Yankees beat Red Sox in rain-delayed game
"We hung out for hours, and everyone came back to the clubhouse. That was rare. It was probably weird to leave, too. But we'd never done it, we didn't know. That's how we did things, kind of chaotic. But final-final, it worked out, and it was a beautiful thing."
LHP J.P. Howell
Oct. 27, Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia
Game 5 of World Series
"Playing in that cold in Philly, it didn't feel like real baseball. Obviously being in the World Series, but what we played in. … If we would have had a great day to play it, that would have been something special. It still was, but to play in the rain and that mud, it was kind of tough."
SS Jason Bartlett
Oct. 29, Citizens Bank
9th inning of Game 5
"The thing that sticks out to me is getting the chance to tie the game up in the last inning, hitting the ball hard and getting out. That's what I've played over in my mind and what I've talked about a lot, and that's probably what I'll remember most."
INF/OF Ben Zobrist
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org