Shortstop Yunel Escobar's play in Wednesday's game against the Red Sox was amazing, dazzling, stunning and a whole bunch of other -ing words. It won top honors for the day from ESPN's SportsCenter and has to be considered among the best defensive plays of the season. Which got us thinking here at Rays Tales HQ about the best plays in Rays, and even Devil Rays, history. This is a subjective exercise, of course, and every time the list seemed complete, another option was introduced. That said, with input from Rays staff and players, ESPN's Mark Simon and others, here are 10 of their best defensive plays:
Escobar's flash SS Yunel Escobar, July 24, 2013, at Red Sox
Escobar ranged to his left to snare Dustin Pedroia's grounder, then in one smooth motion flipped the ball behind his back directly from his glove eye-high to 2B Ben Zobrist, who made a barehanded grab and relayed to first. "The most impressive thing," Zobrist said, "was how easy he made it look."
Super Sam takes flight | RF Sam Fuld, April 9, 2011, at White Sox
Fuld, shifted toward center, raced a long way at top speed when Juan Pierre laced a ball toward the rightfield corner, then took flight — "prototypical Superman dive," Fuld called it — and made the catch in nearly horizontal position as he dived toward the wall. "I was screaming from centerfield when he caught it," then-Ray B.J. Upton said. "That's unbelievable."
Crawford's All-Star catch LF Carl Crawford, July 14, 2009, All-Star Game
Crawford did a lot of amazing things in his nine seasons with Tampa Bay, but he never robbed someone of a home run like he did in the 2009 All-Star Game, and he earned MVP honors for it. In a 3-3 tie in the seventh, Crawford raced back and leaped at the wall to deny Colorado's Brad Hawpe a go-ahead homer. "Definitely probably the best catch I ever made," Crawford said.
Crawford's "ability" LF Carl Crawford, May 10, 2010, at Angels
Two things distinguished this play: Crawford raced full speed to his left and went airborne to rob Torii Hunter of extra bases. LHP David Price still considers it the best he has seen. ESPN commentator Bobby Valentine criticized Crawford for making it look harder than it needed to be. "He said I could have caught that ball standing up," Crawford said. "I can't believe he said that. Obviously he don't know what it's like to have this kind of ability."
Upton's infield arm SS B.J. Upton, Sept. 8, 2004, at Yankees
The Devil Rays days had to be represented somehow, and this play was as good as any made in that time. Upton, 20 at the time, robbed Alex Rodriguez of a hit by backhanding a ball in short leftfield and throwing to first without leaping, the bottom half of his body still facing the leftfield corner. "That was nice," noted Yankees SS Derek Jeter. "A really good play."
Upton's outfield arm CF B.J. Upton, Sept. 1, 2012, at Blue Jays
Having lost the night before when Eliot Johnson was thrown out at the plate, the Rays got sweet revenge. Upton played a short hop off the tricky Rogers Centre turf and unleashed a laser — "a 300-foot strike," Jays manager John Farrell called it — to the plate, where C Jose Molina did a masterful job of catching the ball, blocking Omar Vizquel and applying the tag to end the game. Said Upton: "I just let it go."
Longoria's "walkoff" 3B Evan Longoria, June 17, 2008, vs. Cubs
Unaware the coaches were trying to move him, Longoria had to charge in to make a barehanded pickup of Reed Johnson's bunt, which would have scored the tying run, and fired to first, where Willy Aybar scooped the ball for the final out in the defensive version of a walkoff hit. "Probably," then-closer Troy Percival said, "the best bunt play I've ever seen."
Longoria's 2-for-1 3B Evan Longoria, Sept. 16, 2011, at Red Sox
As if it weren't enough that Longoria, playing in, made a full dive to his right to spear Dustin Pedroia's well-struck liner, he landed with his glove on third base, doubling off Mike Aviles. "Just really a reactionary play," Longoria said. "And I was obviously in the perfect position." Some thought it could have been ESPN's Web Gem of 2011.
Ruggiano to the rescue LF Justin Ruggiano, Aug. 27, 2008, vs. Blue Jays
For a part-time player, Ruggiano made a lot of big plays. Few were bigger than a leaping catch Ruggiano, just shifted from rightfield to left, made as he crashed into the wall, then crumbled to the ground for the final out of a 1-0 win. "I knew it was in my glove," Ruggiano said. "I just had to make sure it stayed there."
J.P. goes to the dogs LHP J.P. Howell, Sept. 23, 2012, vs. Blue Jays
Howell made what manager Joe Maddon called an "impossible" play, running off the mound to corral a blooped ball and then, as he fell toward the infield dirt, made a cross-body throw to first to save a run. He credited his dog, Rosie, for keeping him in shape to do such things.
Also worth considering: The sixth-inning triple play in Game 161 of 2011. … Longoria's brazen game-ending double play with the bases loaded vs. the Tigers in 2010. … Dioner Navarro catching Dustin Pedroia stealing to end the sixth inning in Game 7 in the 2008 AL Championship Seroes. … A majors-first 2-6-2 triple play in 2006.
Wednesday's $2 Kids Night is the first of "a number of ticket specials and promotions" to "try to pack Tropicana Field" over the final two months, team president Matt Silverman told WDAE-AM 620. … Sound familiar? Ex-Rays/current Cubs C Dioner Navarro on the trade of again-ex-teammate Matt Garza (above left): "He's one of those guys that you can't stand him but you can't live without him." … Sound familiar, too?: Former Rays/current Nats closer Rafael Soriano was pulled from Thursday's game by bench coach Randy Knorr for a lack of intensity in a non-save situation. … RHP Chris Archer made grantland.com's midseason list of the game's most exciting players.
Got a minute? Matt Joyce
Best meal you can make? It depends what your tastes are. I'm a big fan of cooking a filet on the grill … but I also can cook some Italian dishes and some soups that are pretty solid.
Favorite movie? I like Braveheart a lot, and Dumb and Dumber, I could watch that all day every day.
Band you'd like to be on stage with? I actually had the chance to announce Chevelle at (a) Next Big Thing concert, and they've always been one of my favorites.
Dream vacation spot? Italy. I'd like to see all of it.
Celebrity crush? I've always liked Jessica Biel.