What this Rays team ultimately will be remembered for will be determined in the next four (or five or six) days: celebrating as the first team to make the postseason after being nine games out in September, or agonizing over the missed opportunities in falling just short. But there has been plenty that's been memorable along the way.
3B Evan Longoria, below, even after missing a month, and struggling for another five weeks after returning, has had a great season, maybe the best of his four. He is not only pushing 30 homers and 100 RBIs but, despite a .244 average, is making them count. He leads the team with 35 game-tying or go-ahead RBIs, and his success seems to translate, as he has a .305-21-69 stat line in the 68 wins when he has been in the lineup and .157-7-23 in 60 losses. (Although, they have a better record without him, 18-11, than with, 68-60.) Of the position players, he has been most valuable.
But this is an odd team in an unusual season. And that calls for an unconventional evaluation. Because the truly most valuable Ray is one who participates in barely 20 percent of their games. What RHP James Shields has done, beyond his team-high 15 victories (a season after losing 15 with a 5.18 ERA) has made possible a lot of what the Rays accomplished.
The innings Shields piled up (240⅔), including a major-league high 11 complete games, covered and compensated for a shorthanded bullpen. The high level of his work — including 24 quality starts (seven or more innings, three runs or fewer) — despite the sixth-lowest run support in the AL (3.70 runs per 9 IP) kept the Rays in all but two of his 32 outings (they are 20-12). And the mentoring he provided to their young starters has been immeasurable.
For all those reasons, Shields is most valuable.
Runnersup: Longoria, Kyle Farnsworth, Ben Zobrist
Most pleasant surprises
The Rays came into the season void of any pitchers who had proven they could handle the final inning. Kyle Farnsworth was given the first shot based on his limited experience — 27 career saves, with only one in the previous four seasons — and clenched it, converting 23 of his first 27 chances, with a 1.87 ERA, until elbow issues surfaced
But a bigger surprise had to be 1B Casey Kotchman, left. The local kid was reduced to signing a minor-league contract coming off a miserable year in Seattle and started at Triple A, but he got breaks when Manny Ramirez bailed and Dan Johnson failed and spent much of the season among the AL's top hitters while again leading the majors in fielding percentage.
Runnersup: Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Sam Fuld
This might be the toughest decision of the three because of the depths of disappointment in SS Reid Brignac and C John Jaso.
The Rays needed Brignac, left, to do more (his .187 average third lowest and his five extra-base hits the fewest of all players with 250 PAs) after handing him the job by trading Jason Bartlett in what turned out to be one of their biggest losses. The lingering questions are whether they overevaluated or Brignac underperformed, and if they give him another shot.
But Jaso regressed more, as he not only didn't hit (dropping from a .263 average and .750 OPS to .220 / .646) but also was a mess behind the plate (allowing 50 of 59 stolen bases, failing to block balls) and created an even bigger hole going forward. Brignac "wins" this, but it's close.
Runnersup: Jaso, Manny Ramirez, Kelly Shoppach/Dan Johnson
5 key numbers
10 Losses when tied or ahead after 8 innings.
17-18 W-L vs. A's, Mariners and Orioles.
52 Games (of 157) with 2 or fewer runs; 6-46 record.
.227 Batting average with runners in scoring position, 28th in MLB.
18,543 Average attendance, second-lowest in MLB.
Making their pitch
As madly frustrating as the offense was, the pitching was spectacularly good. Going into the final five games, the Rays were second in the AL with a 3.61 ERA, allowing a league-low .236 average (which would be the best since the 2001 Mariners) and 598 runs. Their starters have thrown an AL-high 1,030⅓ innings (with an AL-best 3.50 ERA, 15 complete games and 77 of at least 7 IP), are all homegrown and all under 30 (extending their record streak to 759 games). Related, the Rays lead the majors with a .988 fielding percentage.
Among the key players who left the Rays:
Jason Bartlett, SD .251-2-40
Carl Crawford, BOS .259-11-55
Carlos Pena, CHIC .231-28-80
Grant Balfour, OAK 5-2-2 2.48
Matt Garza, CHIC 9-10 3.35
Joaquin Benoit, DET 4-3-2 3.02
Randy Choate, FLA 1-1-0 1.82
Rafael Soriano, NYY 2-2-2 3.62
Dan Wheeler, BOS 2-2-0 4.38
All stats through Friday
Your move, rook
Among the contributions of the team-record tying 16 rookies (and 10 pitchers) this season:
• RHP Jeremy Hellickson has 13 wins (and 10 losses in which the Rays scored a total of nine runs) and an AL-best 2.90 ERA and .208 opponents average.
•OF Desmond Jennings is two steals from becoming the first AL rookie with 10 HRs and 20 SBs since 2003.
• A major-league record 52 games into the season without making multiple errors, then SS Sean Rodriguez making three in the May 30 game.
• Ben Zobrist having a good week during an April 28 doubleheader in Minnesota with seven hits (including two homers) and 10 RBIs.
• Logging a fourth straight winning season, matching the fourth longest active streak in majors.
• Johnny Damon, left, becoming the second player in history with 200 homers, 400 steals and 100 triples and the fourth to play in 140 games for 16 consecutive seasons.
• Potentially becoming first AL team since 1976 to go a full season without scoring 10 or more at home.
• David Price striking out a team-record 14 at Toronto on Aug. 28.
• B.J. and Arizona's Justin Upton becoming the first brothers to go 20-20 in a season.
• Winning 44 road games, and an AL-most 91 2010-11.
• Sam Fuld becoming a legend.
From small things ...
Of the 78 teams to start a season 1-8, the Rays are one of nine to finish above .500. The most wins after 1-8 start:
1921 Cards 87-55
1916 Giants 86-66
1922 Reds 86-68
2011 RAYS 86-70
1995 Reds* 85-59
* Only team of the 78 to make the postseason
One of the bigger mysteries this season has been why the Rays hit so much worse at home than on the road. Stats with MLB rank:
Avg. .235 (28) .251 (16)
R/G 3.70 (24) 4.90 (4)
OPS .693 (23 .742 (5)
HR/G .91 (17) 1.12 (5)