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Game 6 was the end, but it wasn’t the story of the Rays season

John Romano | Tampa Bay fell two victories short of a World Series title, and that memory should be celebrated more than lamented in the coming days.
Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Willy Adames (1) walks from the plate after striking out for the final out as Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes (15) celebrates the Dodgers' 3-1 World Series win in Game 6 Tuesday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

ST. PETERSBURG — The journey from genius to punchline is a short one in baseball. Just about the distance from the first dugout step to the top of a pitcher’s mound.

In that short walk, Kevin Cash went from celebrated to ridiculed and, by extension, everything the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays accomplished was seemingly brushed aside as footnotes in a larger tale about the evils of modern analytics.

And the same people who once marveled at how Tampa Bay could squeeze so many victories out of a roster devoid of stars, were now explaining that over-reliance of data would lead to the ruination of baseball.

This is nonsense, of course.

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Related: Unforgettable Rays playoff moments, including one infamous decision

You can disagree with the decision to remove Blake Snell from the sixth inning of Game 6 without bashing Cash, and you can question whether numbers should always supersede gut instincts regardless of specific circumstances.

But do not allow the rest of the world to hijack your memories of this Rays team with knee-jerk reactions.

Because the truth is, this team succeeded, in large part, because Cash and the front office were not beholden to previous notions about how rosters should be constructed or games should be managed. And, at the same time, these players seemed as receptive, selfless and committed as any team I’ve ever watched on a daily basis.

Brandon Lowe (8), right, celebrates a three-run home run in the sixth inning with teammate Randy Arozarena (56), as Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Will Smith (16), left, looks on in Game 4 of the World Series on Oct. 24.
[ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

It doesn’t mean they were flawless by any stretch. The offense was exposed to some degree in the postseason, and the lack of innings from starting pitchers became a huge issue with so many back-to-back games and rosters that were frozen in October.

But that doesn’t change the way Ji-Man Choi became a balletic sensation at first base, or how Brandon Lowe emerged as the game’s best second baseman not named D.J. LeMahieu. It doesn’t change how Pete Fairbanks, Ryan Thompson, John Curtiss and Aaron Slegers went from obscurity to valued members of the bullpen. It doesn’t change how Willy Adames' growth at shortstop made the question of Wander Franco’s future a little more complicated, and it certainly doesn’t change how Randy Arozarena went from just another prospect to one of the game’s most feared hitters in 29 glorious days.

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That these Rays ultimately fell two victories short is a disappointment, not an indictment.

Related: If you’re still mad at Kevin Cash, you may want to skip this column

If you look at the 2020 Rays on baseballreference.com, a few things jump out at you. The starting lineup, for instance, looks like a misprint. Michael Perez as the starting catcher? Yoshi Tsutsugo as the DH? Hunter Renfroe as the rightfielder, and Yandy Diaz as the third baseman?

Turns out, they all got the plurality of starts at those positions during the regular season. Yet, by the postseason their roles had been diminished by Mike Zunino, Arozarena, Manuel Margot and Joey Wendle. Some of it was injury-related, but a lot of it was just the way the Rays were built. They shifted, they evolved, they targeted certain lineups for certain opponents and moments.

And, more than anything, they did it without complaint or division.

Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi (26) makes the tag on Dodgers rightfielder Mookie Betts (50) during the eighth inning in Game 3 of the World Series on Oct. 23.
[ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The belief among baseball’s more metrics-minded crowd is that a team’s record in close games is more fluke than skill. In most circumstances, I tend to agree. But in Tampa Bay’s case, I also believe the Rays were uniquely qualified to win close games because of the way the bullpen was built and the number of platoon players that allowed Cash to use pinch-hitters more effectively than any team in baseball.

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Tampa Bay had the league’s best record in games decided by one run or fewer (14-5) and two runs or fewer (23-10) during the regular season. And that trend continued in the playoffs where the Rays went 8-4 in games decided by two runs or less, and 3-5 in other games.

That, to me, suggests a team that got the most out of its talent. It also suggests the Rays did well to reach the sixth game of the World Series.

On a Friday Zoom call, I asked Cash how he would recall this team five years from now.

“Special,” he said, before breaking into a grin. "I certainly hope we all are in a position where we can say this was the second-best team in five years.

Related: The price was not right, but don’t say goodbye to Charlie Morton just yet

“This group, and we’ve talked about it and I don’t want to beat a dead horse, (but) all players this year went through a lot. And I don’t know if any of us can really express what they went through right now. As time passes and hopefully we get some bit closer to normal as seasons and years go by, the appreciation for this group, on the field and off the field, is going to be really, really special.”

When I’m covering a game at night, my scorebook gets neglected in the final few innings as a newspaper deadline nears. Typically, I’ll go back and update the missing pieces once interviews have ended and the story has been written.

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But as I was packing up my baseball stuff the other day, I realized I never filled in the blanks for Game 6 beyond the sixth inning. The scorebook is incomplete, as if the game never was finished.

And I decided that’s the way I prefer to recall this team. They didn’t fail as much as they ran out of time.

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

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