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In the diary of a season, here are five moments that mattered for Rays

A pair of reinforcements helped Tampa Bay overcome injuries and a wobbly bullpen to go 36-18 down the stretch and return to the postseason.
Austin Meadows hit his team-leading 33rd home run on Friday in Toronto in Tampa Bay's playoff-clinching victory against the Blue Jays. His .558 slugging percentage was the third-highest in team history, and the best since Carlos Pena in 2007. DIRK SHADD | Times photo
Austin Meadows hit his team-leading 33rd home run on Friday in Toronto in Tampa Bay's playoff-clinching victory against the Blue Jays. His .558 slugging percentage was the third-highest in team history, and the best since Carlos Pena in 2007. DIRK SHADD | Times photo [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 30, 2019

TORONTO – The Rays completed the last of their 1,506 innings of the regular season on Sunday. Only a small percentage were memorable, but almost every one of them was meaningful.

That’s the legitimacy of a baseball season. Officially it sorts out the winners and losers, but realistically it is a high-wire endurance test. One bad month, one bad week, even one bad game can do you in.

Not everything that happened to the Rays in 2019 was worth pressing in a scrapbook, but each step became part of the journey with its own consequences and rewards.

“Every team in the postseason is incredibly talented and has achieved a lot to get to this point,’’ general manager Erik Neander said. “Speaking specifically for our group, this has been a battle of attrition to reach this point. The number of players used, the adversity faced to continue to stay in this and be able to compete, it hardens you up.’’

With that in mind, and with a one-game playoff looming in Oakland on Wednesday, here are five notable moments, some on-field and some off, that helped shape who the Tampa Bay Rays are today.

1. The phone call: His stock had seriously dipped in most prospect rankings in 2017, he was traded by Pittsburgh in the summer of 2018, and the Rays kept him in Durham until the season’s final two weeks.

If Austin Meadows was feeling uneasy about his role in Tampa Bay for 2019, that was put to rest by manager Kevin Cash even before spring training began. Meadows was on a boat fishing for bass with a friend when he got a call from Cash in February. The message? You’ve already made the team.

“That was big for me because it allowed me to come to spring training and relax,’’ Meadows said. “I appreciated it at the time, but now I really think it helped me to have the year that I’ve had.’’

2. The disaster that was a blessing: Within roughly 24 hours of each other, catchers Michael Perez and Mike Zunino both went down with muscle pulls in early May. At the time, Nick Ciuffo was the only other catcher on the 40-man roster so the front office began making calls.

The Dodgers, who had just signed Travis d’Arnaud as a third catcher, agreed to send him to Tampa Bay for $100,000. Having just been released by the Mets a week earlier, d’Arnaud was a little unnerved when manager Dave Roberts approached him.

“I was in the cage getting ready to hit and Dave Roberts came and grabbed me and said we needed to talk,’’ d’Arnaud recalled. “I thought, “Oh s---, what is this?’’’

Stuck in a traffic jam, d’Arnaud missed a 7:30 flight so he went to a sports bar and watched the Rays play the Yankees on TV before catching a redeye to Tampa Bay and taking a nap in the clubhouse.

Over the next five months, he became the Rays most clutch hitter, leading the team with an RBI every 4.9 at-bats.

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3. The arrival: The bullpen was on the verge of collapse when the front office acquired Nick Anderson from the Marlins on July 31. At that point, the Rays were a dismal 11-14 in one-run games.

Anderson didn’t just give the Rays innings and strikeouts, he also gave them more confidence in tight games. The rookie went 3-0 with a 2.11 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 21.1 innings.

By the way, the Rays were 12-2 in one-run games after his arrival.

“We knew he was really good, but you’re talking about a first-year player, 29-years-old, had a pretty unique career path. I don’t think anybody said he’d be this dominant,’’ Cash said. “But he’s become all of those things.’’

4. The showdown: The Rays were trailing the Indians by 2.5 games in the wild card race when Cleveland came to Tropicana Field on Aug. 29. Tampa Bay’s starting rotation was going on fumes, and the Friday night pitching matchup did not look promising. Cleveland was using Shane Bieber, who was 12-6 with a 3.23 ERA. The Rays had Austin Pruitt, with a 5.57 ERA, coming out of the bullpen for his first start.

Pruitt pitched his heart out, matching Bieber zero for zero into the sixth. The Rays broke through in the seventh, and won 4-0. Two days later, they had swept the Indians and moved past them in the wild card standings.

5. The comeback: A critical road trip was in danger of ending with a third consecutive loss on Sept. 18 in Los Angeles. The Dodgers were beating the Rays 6-4 in the ninth with closer Kenley Jansen on the mound when Ji-Man Choi delivered an RBI single and d’Arnaud tied it with a sacrifice fly.

Two innings later, Meadows hit a home run and Tampa Bay won 8-7.

It began a stretch of seven victories in eight games – including four in extra-innings – that culminated with a playoff-clinching victory at Toronto on Sept. 27.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.