When you think back to the rancorous negotiations between owners and players, the imposition of what seemed like impossibly challenging protocols, and the doom forecasted during the Marlins' and Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreaks, the most amazing thing about the 2020 season may be that it was played to completion.
But here we are, with the regular season ending Sunday and excitement building for the first round of the expanded and re-formatted playoffs starting Tuesday, with the Rays one of the top seeds.
Plenty was different, odd, weird and asterisked in this pandemic-delayed and abbreviated season. And, as usual, the Rays did some historic, memorable and noteworthy things — and that’s besides winning the American League East for the first time since 2010. Among them:
To the left
The Rays do much unconventionally. On Sept. 11, they did something no team, going back to at least 1900, had ever done: start a lineup with nine left-handed hitters. In part, because very few teams even have nine lefty-only swingers. There had been 133 games in which a team started nine lefties, including switch-hitters. And 26 when a team started eight lefties, most recently the Rays a week earlier. Actually, the Rays had 10 lefties on Sept. 11, as pitcher Blake Snell also swings lefty. Their last most-celebrated lineup was July 3, 2014, when Joe Maddon, using the numerical position designations (and 0 for the DH), channeled Tommy Tutone’s song, “Jenny,” with a top seven of 8675309.
I’ll take a dozen to go
The Rays don’t usually believe in having a designated closer. With seven members of their planned bullpen sidelined by injuries (four for the season), they went to a new extreme. Twelve Rays pitchers have recorded saves, tying the 1973 Rangers for most in the majors since saves became an official stat in 1969. (A study applying the rule retroactively found only two other teams in modern history would have had as many as 12 — the 1961 and 1959 A’s.) Those ’73 Rangers, who lost 105 games and went through three managers, including Whitey Herzog and Billy Martin, had a Tampa Bay connection: one of their 12 pitchers with saves was Jackie Brown, who in 2002 was the Devil Rays' pitching coach. For what it’s worth, the Rangers used their 12th in their 148th game, the Rays in their 53rd.
Oh, the pain
Injuries and illness have been a major issue all year, with 19 players serving 20 injured-list stints. On Sept. 1, they had a team-record-tying 13 players out (counting newly acquired Brett Phillips for COVID-19 intake testing). The full list has included three starting pitchers, eight relievers and top prospect Brendan McKay, plus their top catcher, first and third basemen and two key outfielders.
It’s the matchups
Between the never-ending quest to maximize production by matching up his players to opposing pitchers and an ongoing slew of injuries, manager Kevin Cash is always changing his lineup. Last year, he used 152 different batting orders over the 162-game season, per baseball-reference.com. That seemed stable compared this season, when he used 58 in the first 59. And the only one he used twice had two players at different positions, so technically, he may complete an oddly perfect season. The one he repeated: Manuel Margot CF, Randy Arozarena LF, Austin Meadows DH, Mike Brosseau 2B/3B, Willy Adames SS, Joey Wendle 3B/2B, Hunter Renfroe RF, Kevan Smith C, Nate Lowe 1B.
With their 36th win Monday, these Rays are guaranteed to finish with the best winning percentage in team history, surpassing the .599 mark (97-65) by the 2008 pennant winners. Their 39-20 mark (.661) extrapolates to 107-55 over a full season. Also of note, Cash now has the best winning percentage (.521 with a 453-416 record) of any manager in Rays history. (Since you’re going to ask, Joe Maddon was 754-705, .517 in nine seasons.)
Of the first 3,700 home runs in the Rays' 23-season history, only one tied a game with them down to their last strike, and it was kind of a biggie: Dan Johnson’s shot in Game 162 in 2011, setting up Evan Longoria’s 12th-inning heroics. On Sept. 16 vs. the Nationals, Brandon Lowe joined Johnson, though the Rays lost in 10 innings.
Unless the Rays get benevolent in their final game, they — potentially with the Brewers and Reds — could become the first team to go through a season without a sacrifice bunt. Sure, it’s only 60 games, but in the full 2019 season, they had only eight, which was third fewest (A’s 7, Angels 4).
Quote of the year
“I’ve got a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 miles an hour. Period.”
— Cash, ranting against the Yankees after Aroldis Chapman threw a pitch at Brosseau’s head. (If you don’t believe us, look at the number of T-shirts made in honor of Cash’s quote.)
So how exactly did Nate Lowe end up shirtless in the dugout for Wednesday' s post-AL East-clinching cigar smoking? Benevolence, he claimed: “I didn’t want cigar smell to get stuck in my jersey, because the clubhouse staff probably wouldn’t appreciate that.” … The Tampa Bay baseball writers (full disclosure, I am chapter chairman) got their three award winners pretty much right, though reliever John Curtiss deserved more attention in the top rookie voting. … Biggest pleasant surprise of the season? The collective work of the bullpen, given the injuries. Biggest disappointment? Last year’s co-MVP Austin Meadows, due to illness, inconsistency, injury. … Props to home clubhouse manager Ryan Denlinger for the creative clinching celebration, ordering confetti cannons so the players could “pop” something since MLB banned bottles this year. … I understand why 19-year-old top prospect Wander Franco was included in the 40-player postseason pool as protection for further infield injuries, just not how the Rays got to where that was their best option. ... Just how is it fair that Chapman won’t serve his three-game suspension (from the Sept. 1 game!) until next season because his appeal hearing was delayed, per MLB Network’s Jon Heyman, due to “availability of witnesses.” Zoom, anybody? … In the first of what likely will be several such endorsements, The Athletic’s Jayson Stark picked Cash as AL Manager of the Year over Chicago’s Rick Renteria and Toronto’s Charlie Montoyo. ... The Rays released a “digital bobblehead” of Austin Meadows that is, well, an interesting concept, including a scratch-off-type element for prizes. See raysbaseball.com/meadowsbobble. … ESPN’s Chipper Jones said the Reds have the best postseason rotation; colleague Rick Sutcliffe picked the Indians.