The Rays today wrap up the Season After, a moderate success that is viewed as a grand disappointment given where they were — and where they were going — last year. Here's a bit of a look back at the best and worst of it:
Also worth mentioning …
• After going his first 198 games without a save, Randy Choate got two on back-to-back days, May 29-30. And Russ Springer got his first since 2001.
• Jason Bartlett broke the team record set by original Ray Quinton McCracken by hitting in 19 consecutive games.
• There were home runs hit in the first 41 games at Tropicana Field.
• Evan Longoria on Aug. 4 became the first player since at least 1954 to have two home runs and four strikeouts in the same game.
Five critical moments in the season
1. April 13: After an unimpressive 3-3 start, the Rays came home to hang their AL pennant and launch a week-long celebration of their 2008 success. They appeared to spend too much time reflecting on how good they were — manager Joe Maddon later referred to it as "dig-me" week — and stumbled through a 2-5 homestand, leading quickly to a slow start (9-14 in April) that would haunt them later.
2. June 2: What was described as a minor strain of Evan Longoria's left hamstring appeared to have major implications. In the 52 games to that point, he hit .332 with 13 homers and 55 RBIs. In the next 71 games (through Aug. 29), he hit .221 with 11 homers and 33 RBIs. In 33 games since, he hit .317 with eight homers and 24 RBIs.
3. Aug. 7: A staggering 7-6, 11-inning walkoff loss in Seattle — on a two-run homer by unlikely hero Ryan Langerhans off J.P. Howell — turned out to be the beginning of the end. The Rays lost 22 of their next 35 games (including 11 straight) and 91/2 games in the wild-card race as the bullpen went 2-11 and blew 9 of 13 save opportunities.
4. Aug. 28: The trade of Scott Kazmir may have made business sense but created at least the appearance that the front office didn't have confidence they could catch Boston. The Rays were 69-57 to that point, 15-20 since.
5. Sept. 7: Whatever slim chance the Rays had of running down the Red Sox was gone as AL home run leader Carlos Peña's season was ended when a CC Sabathia pitch broke two fingers on his left hand.
Most valuable Ray
What for much of the season looked like a crowded field and a convoluted vote clarified itself considerably in recent weeks.
Evan Longoria still put up huge numbers and played Gold Glove-caliber defense at third. LF Carl Crawford still had arguably his best all-around season at the plate, on the bases and in the field. SS Jason Bartlett still was the key to the infield and did a terrific job after being moved to the leadoff role.
But no Ray was more valuable than Ben Zobrist. He showed it at the plate, hitting 27 homers, knocking in 91 runs and ranking in the AL top seven in walks, on-base and slugging percentage and OPS.
He showed it in the field, playing rightfield and — at a time of need after Akinori Iwamura's injury — at second base with equal aplomb, and five other positions (plus DH). He showed it the way he played hard every pitch of every game. He showed it.
Next in line: Longoria, Bartlett, Crawford
Most pleasant surprise
Well, when a guy who came into the season with hopes just to win a utility job ends up the MVP, that's a good place to start. The tremendous work of Jeff Niemann — who didn't even have a spot on the team until the final day of spring training — can't be overlooked, it's just that Ben Zobrist, above, did more.
Next in line: Niemann, J.P. Howell, Randy Choate
In contrast to the MVP race, this field seemed to grow as the season went on. But as much as C Dioner Navarro regressed, as frustrating as RHP Matt Garza's season (and James Shields') became, as maddeningly inconsistent as CF B.J. Upton was, as bad as Grant Balfour and other relievers looked at times, as horrid a year as RHP Andy Sonnanstine had, nobody was as disappointing as DH Pat Burrell. Maybe in all of baseball.
Consider that Burrell was brought in explicitly to improve the offense — and at the hefty cost of $7 million this season and $9 million in 2010 — and he was one of the least-productive players in the American League. Do you know how many of the 87 AL hitters with at least 450 plate appearances had a lower batting average than his .223? None. And how many had a lower slugging percentage than his .370? Five, including three infielders. He has fewer home runs, 14, than Brian Roberts and Kurt Suzuki. And he has fewer RBIs, 64, than Asdrubal Cabrera and Maicer Izturis. That's disappointing.
Next in line: Navarro, Upton, Garza
Is that a thesaurus in your pocket?
Among the words Joe Maddon used in quotes this season: astounding, exasperating, false analyzation, malady, maligned, minuscule, pollyannaish, quantum, regenerate, thicket.
Among those he referenced: Thomas Wolfe, Winston Churchill, Rickie Lee Jones, Johnny Cash and Herb Tarlek (of WKRP in Cincinnati fame)
With Joe Maddon having silver hair
With Joe Maddon having black hair
The Rays did, and were party to, some interesting accomplishments:
• Carl Crawford tied the modern-day major-league record by stealing six bases against Boston on May 3.
• Andy Sonnanstine became — due to a lineup card mistake — the first pitcher in the starting lineup for an AL home game since 1976, when Ken Brett did so for the White Sox.
• The Rays became the first AL team since the 1914 Yankees to have at least one steal in 19 consecutive games.
• Chicago's Mark Buehrle threw the 18th perfect game in major-league history against them on July 23.
• New York's Derek Jeter tied Lou Gehrig atop the Yankees all-time hit list against them on Sept. 9.
• B.J. Upton became the first Ray in 1,939 games to hit for the cycle on Friday.
Long and short of it
• The June 23 pitching matchup featured the largest age difference in Rays history — 22 years, 281 days — between 23-year-old David Price and Philadelphia's 46-year-old Jamie Moyer.
• The Sept. 28 pitching matchup featured the biggest combined height in Rays history, 162 inches, between 6-9 Jeff Niemann and 6-9 Mark Hendrickson of Baltimore.
Going to extremes
In a span of two months, the Rays had the biggest collapse in franchise history, blowing a 10-0 lead at Cleveland on May 25, and the biggest comeback, rallying from an 8-0 deficit at Toronto on July 25. David Price started both games. (Even odder, on May 15 they came back from a 7-0 deficit vs. Cleveland, which at the time was the largest they'd overcome.)
Seriously, what did they expect?
For some reason, the Rays thought it was a good idea to awaken the ghosts of their past by wearing original 1998-2000 multihued, purple-trimmed uniforms for a July 11 Turn Back the Clock promotion.
Naturally, there was a blown lead, an injury, sloppy play, a controversy and — of course — an ugly loss. All that was missing were the screaming rants of former … ah, it's too easy.