Rays complete surprisingly successful season, eye playoffs in 2019

Mallex Smith (0) scores on a single by Tommy Pham (29) during the fifth inning. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Mallex Smith (0) scores on a single by Tommy Pham (29) during the fifth inning. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published September 30 2018
Updated September 30 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — A Rays season expected to be disappointing ended that way Sunday.

Just not how anyone thought.

Following a winter/spring purge of veterans, a rash of injuries and a miserable start, these Rays were predicted by many to lose 100-plus games and look bad in doing so.

Instead, they transitioned to an entertaining and intriguing young squad that, with a 9-4 victory over Toronto Sunday, won a remarkable 90 games, and the pain and frustration they felt was in falling short of making the playoffs.

"I think there are a lot of people in here that are pretty sad this is over,'' Jake Bauers said.

Manager Kevin Cash said he wanted the players to recognize what they did but be driven to do better.

"It was successful,'' manager Kevin Cash said. "We should be very proud of the way we played this year, the things that we accomplished, the groundwork we laid. But we're not satisfied.''

Here is a look back and ahead:

Four things Rays GM Erik Neander said Sunday

1. On being headed in the right direction: "The arrow the last few years has probably been somewhere pointing sideways; I think we finally have the arrow pointing up.''
2. On being ready to take the next step in 2019: "We want to improve, and to improve on the number of wins we had this year should put us in the territory where we're expecting playoffs.''
3. On making big-bucks additions to what will be a low $30s-million payroll: "Because of where we are financially and how young our team is, it allows greater flexibility by trade, by free agency, whatever it may be. We need to be careful with how we go about it. We need to have the right balance of patient and committed to our young guys and somebody we can basically plug and play and be an impact-type guy.''
4. On what could distinguish 2018: "I hope when we look back at this year it will be seen as the year that started off a run of many competitive, playoff-achieving seasons and hopefully a championship in there at some point.''

Four big moments

1. Jake Bauers' walkoff homer to complete sweep of Yankees, June 24
2. Daniel Robertson's walkoff grand slam to beat Marlins, followed by visit to injured teen in hospital, July 22
3. Tampa product Denard Span's bases-loaded triple in eighth to spark opening-day comeback win over Red Sox, March 29.
4. Diego Castillo's strikeout of Jose Altuve with bases loaded, then Yuli Gurriel's groundout, in eighth inning of third straight win over Astros, July 1.

Four points of history

1. Sergio Romo's first pitch strike to Angels' Zack Cosart, on the way to striking out the side, on May 19 in Anaheim was the launch of the opener strategy, and possibly the start of a revolution.
2. LHP Jonny Venters' return to the majors on April 25 after nearly six years of battling arm injuries was one of the feel-good stories of the season.
3. LHP Blake Snell broke David Price's team record with 21 wins, had a 1.89 ERA that is lowest among AL starters since Pedro Martinez's 1.74 in 2000, and had 27 starts of two or fewer runs, most (for non openers) in the AL since Wilbur Wood in 1972.
4. As a by-product of the opener, RHP Ryne Stanek on Sunday broke the major-league record with his 29th straight winless "start,'' and also was the first pitcher in history to have 29 starts and 30 relief outings in one season.

Four players who likely played their last games as Rays:

1. DH/1B C.J. Cron
2. OF Carlos Gomez
3. RHP Sergio Romo
4. C Jesus Sucre

Four players who we're eager to see next year:

1. LHP Blake Snell
2. INF Joey Wendle
3. INF Daniel Robertson
4. OF Tommy Pham

Four players who have something to prove:

1. 1B Jake Bauers
2. RHP Tyler Glasnow
3. OF Kevin Kiermaier
4. DH Ji-Man Choi