The Rays wrap up a regular season like no other today, because for the first time in their 11 years it's not actually the end. Much about their incredible season will be said, written, blogged, slide-showed and podcasted in the days leading up to Thursday's (say it slowly) first-ever … playoff … game … at … Tropicana … Field. There were some things that happened this season that many people thought they would never see, and may never see again. Here's a bit of a look back:
Most valuable Ray
There are "experts" around the baseball world questioning the Tampa Bay BBWAA chapter's election of SS Jason Bartlett as the Rays' MVP. And that shows how little they know.
The biggest improvement the Rays have made is allowing fewer runs, from 944 last season to 664, potentially the third largest decrease in major-league history. And the biggest reason has been the addition of Bartlett.
Though not the flashiest, he has had his share of highlights. More vital are the plays he makes that otherwise wouldn't get made, another key factor in the Rays' near-record decrease in ERA, from 5.53 last season to 3.80.
So for every stat about his lack of offense (.268 average, 37 RBIs, .690 OPS) or his number of errors (16, matching the fifth most among major-league shortstops) and low fielding percentage (.970, 16th among regular shortstops), or unimpressive manufactured meters such as range factor (12th best) and zone rating (ninth), consider this pretty good one about his value:
When Bartlett starts at shortstop, the Rays are 76-46. When he doesn't, they are 20-19.
That makes him pretty valuable.
Runnersup: Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria. Most pleasant surprise
Longoria's rookie season has been impressive but not really surprising. Thirteen wins are a lot for Andy Sonnanstine, but he showed at the end of last season he was capable. And the line starts tomorrow for anyone who predicted 11 homers for Ben Zobrist.
But the most pleasant surprise?
How about Gabe Gross, a previous part-timer with the Jays and Brewers becoming a key player, with three walkoff hits, a career-high 13 homers and 14 of his 38 RBIs tying or putting the Rays ahead?
Or Eric Hinske, unemployed a week before spring training, signing a minor-league deal and playing a major role, with 19 homers (most since his 2002 rookie of the year season) and 57 RBIs?
Or Grant Balfour, cut in spring training and passed over by all other teams on waivers, emerging as one of the majors' most untouchable relievers, striking out 36 percent of his hitters and posting a 1.42 relief ERA that is second best?
Or J.P. Howell, who went from fringe starter to invaluable reliever, leading major-league relievers in innings pitched, strikeouts and, best of all, most runners stranded (88.2 percent)?
We'll call it a tossup between Balfour and Howell.
Runnersup: Gross, Hinske, Edwin Jackson. Best feel-good story
How could anyone not feel good about seeing Rocco Baldelli back on the field? Especially anyone who saw his emotional spring training news conference that sounded like farewell. When he disclosed details of the mysterious mitochondrial disorder that caused extreme muscle fatigue, the bigger question was about his long-term health than whether he would play again.
The Rays had so many injuries — 18 players served time on the DL — that there are plenty of explanations. But still, some players didn't have the kind of year, for whatever reason, they were expected to.
CF B.J. Upton, who has been playing with a bad shoulder, didn't put up the kind of power numbers he can but at least compensated with 44 steals. Carl Crawford, before his injury, was having, arguably, one of his worst seasons. Scott Kazmir, despite 12 wins and a 3.49 ERA, called his performance "a disappointing season." Jonny Gomes certainly didn't do much (.171 average) with the opportunities he had.
But the player the Rays expected the most from and got the least had to be reliever Al Reyes, who didn't seem to get anyone out and got released.
Runnersup: Crawford, Gomes. Strangest sight
AL East W-L Pct. GB
x-Tampa Bay 96-65 .596—
y-Boston 94-66 .588 1.5
NY Yankees 88-72 .550 7.5
Toronto 85-75 .531 10.5
Baltimore 67-92 .421 28
x—clinched division; y—clinched wild card
Other things you don't often see
. Joe Maddon intentionally walking Texas' Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded on July 17 in Texas, just the fifth time in modern history it has been done.
. Troy Percival's four-walk save vs. Marlins, June 24. Just the third time in major-league history a pitcher got a save in one inning or less with four or more walks.
. Three straight homers vs. Angels, June 9. After 64,094 plate appearances in 1,680 games over 11 seasons, they hit three consecutive HRs for the first time.
. The Rays' first doubleheader sweep on Tuesday in Baltimore; the 1,772 games they played before doing so are the most in major-league history.
. The first official use of instant replay, Sept. 3 on Alex Rodriguez's homer at the Trop, and the first call overturned, Sept. 19 when Carlos Pena was awarded a home run at the Trop.
. Nine walks with the bases loaded by Pena, most in a season in at least 50 years; Jackie Jensen had eight for Boston in 1959.
. Eight sellouts at Tropicana Field, and 22 crowds in excess of 30,000.
. Five runs on two swings vs. Cubs, June 19. To start a seven-run seventh that clinched a sweep, the Rays had two walks, two hit batters and a grand slam by Carl Crawford.
The Rays are just the second team to go from the majors' worst record to first place the next year, and it hasn't happened much in other sports, either (it has never happened in the NBA):
1990, '91 Braves
2007, '08 Rays NFL
1974, '75 Colts
1998, '99 Colts
2003, '04 Chargers NHL
1923-24, '24-25 Tigers
1935-36, '36-37 Canadiens Turnaround specialists
The Rays are the ninth major-league team, and second AL, to go from last place one season to first the next:
Year Team W-L Next
1990 Twins 74-88 95-67
1990 Braves 65-97 94-68
1992 Phillies 70-92 97-65
1996 Giants 68-94 90-72
1997 Padres 76-86 98-64
1998 D'backs 65-97 100-62
2006 Cubs 66-96 85-77
2006 D'backs 76-86 90-72
2007 Rays 66-96 96-65
Rapper Lil Wayne told ESPN The Magazine that among his favorite players is rookie LHP David Price: "He's something, man. I'm excited to see him pitch. If he was gonna use a song of mine I'd say it should be I'm Me. I like that song. That's a confident song." … Yes, that was Hank Steinbrenner writing in the Sporting News that baseball's divisional setup "isn't fair" because "the AL East is never weak." Seriously. … TV star Eva Longoria is now paying attention to Evan, if you believe the Hollywood gossipists (such as celebrity-gossip.net), saying, "It's good to see that he's doing the name proud." … Taking the Rays Mohawk craze to a new, um, level, St. Petersburg's Skin Deep Spatique is offering a ladies' special: Mohawk Bikini Waxes for $30. … The nine TBS postseason analysts were unanimous in picking Joe Maddon as AL manager of the year, and all picked Longoria as the top rookie but Ron Darling, who named Minnesota's Denard Span.