Sunday, June 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays' run of winning seasons deserves attention

ST. PETERSBURG

As achievement goes, this doesn't exactly call for confetti. No one will get a trophy, and no one will get a ring, and no one will raise a banner.

This time, the goal was just a signpost that the team sped past in the night. No one clapped, and no one cheered, and no one exhaled loudly.

The Rays, however, are guaranteed a winning record again.

Even now, even in the middle of a playoff race, even after a loss that raises the question of whether the Rays are good enough for the postseason, shouldn't someone notice? Anyone?

For the Rays, this is now six winning seasons in a row, which isn't bad when you consider that before Stuart Sternberg, Matt Silverman, Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon got here, the record was zero in a row. Shoot, before 2008, the best the Rays had ever done was to finish next-to-last in their division back in '04. Whee!

These days? Things are better. Only the Yankees, who have managed 20 straight winning seasons, have been better for a longer period of time. St. Louis also has six straight winning seasons.

Except for that? No one. Not the Red Sox and not the Giants and not the Phillies and not the Braves and not the Rangers.

No one.

Again, the standards have changed in Tampa Bay, and no one is satisfied with a winning season anymore. We're too busy gnawing our knuckles over games like Tuesday night's 7-1 loss to Texas. Around here, fans want to win a World Series, or at least get to one, or at the very least make the playoffs. When a team has averaged 92 wins over the previous five years, no one is going to get giddy about winning 82.

Still, you can want more and, along the way, you can pause to appreciate what the Rays have done. Six straight winning seasons says a lot about consistency, and achievement, and excellence. Especially when you remember that, on the day Maddon was hired, no one was sure if he deserved congratulations or condolences.

"Roll back the tape to when we first arrived and how promising that appeared to be," Maddon said. "Who would have thunk it at that time. It puts us up there with the better franchises of the recent past. Don't underestimate the significance of six winning seasons, and the way it speaks to ownership and the front office. You have to have good people at the top, or you can't survive."

Six seasons, and the Rays have won. The Bucs have never done that, not even during the Tony Dungy years. The Lightning has never done that, not even in the John Tortorella years.

The Rays have won despite competing against the big money of the Yankees and the Red Sox. They have won despite losing Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton, despite trading Matt Garza and James Shields, despite wearing out Carlos Peña. They have won on nights you swear they could not hit a Buick driving across the plate slowly.

They have won by being smarter than most teams, more creative than most teams, looser than most teams. They have stockpiled young arms and placed a premium on playing defense, and they have an uncommon ability to shake off today's game before tomorrow's.

Also, they have raised expectations. Winning doesn't impress people anymore. Still, six in a row is fairly impressive. Still, there is something admirable to it. Consider this: Since 2008, the Yankees have been the best team in baseball at 558-402 (.581). The Rays are second at .563. Put it this way: If you don't think six straight winning seasons means something, then you weren't paying attention for the first 10 years of the franchise.

It's odd. Every time the Rays hit one of their ugly patches, the natural reaction is to blame Maddon, as if the Rays are the '27 Yankees and other teams should quake in their presence. Never mind that the Rays had two afterthoughts at this year's All-Star Game.

In some ways, this has been a trying season for Maddon. David Price struggled early. Fernando Rodney was awful. Evan Longoria was hurt. Alex Cobb was hit in the head by a batted ball and missed 50 games. Matt Moore had a sore elbow and missed 30. Price had a triceps strain and missed 44. The bullpen has been spotty. The hitting has faded in and out. Wil Myers didn't make his debut until June 18. Jeremy Hellickson has struggled.

And yet, Maddon has remained his unflappable self, which seems to raise the flap ratio in his fans. Once again, he leads the American League in silver linings and Skittles-colored skies. There is no more positive manager in the game, which drives a lot of his critics crazy, because they want him as miserable as they are. I suspect that the snakes and monkeys don't have the effect that he wants, but his brand of silliness does keep the clubhouse from becoming tense, even at the worst of times.

For the Rays, he works. The conga line of young pitchers works. The emphasis on great defense works.

Yes, there are larger goals out there. No one is going to stop and bow now. There is a wild-card position to be earned, and a playoff to survive. A lifetime of winning seasons doesn't replace a championship.

But with a dozen games to go, another winning season isn't a bad place to start, either.

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