When it was finally time to play ball last year, we said in this space that the season would have an asterisk because of the abbreviated schedule, rule changes and other accommodations. Instead, it turned out to be one of the most memorable in Rays history, headlined by just the second trip in franchise history to the World Series. Here are 20 things we will remember most about 2020:
20. That there was a season
When spring training camps were shut down in mid March due to the coronavirus, the sport was put on an indefinite hold. Even as officials devised health and safety protocols to make it possible to stage games, fighting between owners and players over financial aspects threatened to kill any chance of resuming play. More than once, a key Rays person said he was convinced there wouldn’t be a season. Finally in late June, commissioner Rob Manfred declared there would be a 60-game season starting in late July, with an expanded playoff field in the usual October window.
19. What a season it was
Despite a 4-6 start that included an 0-5 first road trip, the Rays had their most successful season ever based on a .667 winning percentage, their American League-best 40-20 record extrapolating to a 108-54 pace over a full season. They won the AL East for the first since 2010 and made the playoffs in back-to-back years for the second time.
18. And what a postseason
The Rays won their first three series in the playoff tournament that was expanded to include eight teams in each league. They swept the Blue Jays in the best-of-three wild-card round. They went to a fifth, decisive game to beat the Yankees in the AL Division Series, their first time getting out of that round in their last five tries. And they went to a seventh, decisive game against the Astros in the AL Championship Series, winning the pennant and advancing to the World Series for the first time since 2008. They lost there in six games to the Dodgers. Playing a record 20 postseason games, they were 11-9.
17. Silent nights
Regular-season games were played without fans, and the empty stands created an eerie quiet and absence of energy that took some getting used to. The sounds of the game were much more audible, providing a dialogue of colorful language and specific detail, some NSFW, that reporters and broadcast microphones never had open access to in the past. Teams used manufactured crowd noise and cutouts of fans to create some atmosphere.
16. Oh the pain
As much care as the Rays take with their pitchers, the season re-start with a quickly staged three-week training camp turned out to be a painful experience. Twelve pitchers were sidelined by injury — with Jalen Beeks, Yonny Chirinos and Colin Poche needing Tommy John elbow procedures, Brendan McKay a torn labrum repaired. Cody Reed, Chaz Roe and Oliver Drake also ended up not finishing the season healthy. “There’s definitely been some sleepless nights,” pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. Overall, they had 15 players serve 16 stints on the big-league injured list.
15. Sick feeling
Six Rays players were known to test positive for COVID-19 before or during Spring 2.0 camp. Infielder Jose Martinez and pitchers Yonny Chirinos and Tyler Glasnow returned with minimal impact. Outfielder Randy Arozarena took three weeks to test negative and a few more to get back in game shape. Brendan McKay recovered, then hurt his shoulder and needed surgery without ever starting the season. But the player most impacted was outfielder Austin Meadows. The team’s 2019 co-MVP got over the infection by early August, but never got in shape and had a miserable season, further marred by a September oblique strain. After hitting .291 with 33 homers, 89 RBIs and a .922 OPS in 2019, he posted a 2020 line of just .205-4-13-.667.
14. A save for you, and you, and you
The Rays tied a nearly 50-year-old major-league record by having 12 pitchers record saves, and they did so in their first 53 games. The Rangers, who set the mark in 1973, needed 148. (Saves became an official stat in 1969, but the Rays said even when applied retroactively, only two other teams had 12 pitchers get at least one, the 1959 and 1961 A’s.) Of note, Pete Fairbanks became the 13th Ray with a save when he closed out their first playoff game.
13. Fan club
In a 14-5, July 27 win in their fourth game of the season, Rays pitchers Tyler Glasnow, Diego Castillo, Jalen Beeks and Jose Alvarado teamed up to strike out 19 Braves, setting a team mark for a nine-inning game, one shy of the major-league record. They were the first team to have their pitchers strike out 19 or more while the hitters scored 14 or more runs. The Rays also led the majors having 18 players hit homers, going 23-10 in games decided by two or fewer runs, having their hitters strike out 608 times, and allowing starting pitchers to complete six innings only nine times.
12. Lowe, as in wow
Second baseman Brandon Lowe’s postseason was one to forget, as he went 9-for-76 (.118), including 0-for-18 in the Division Series. But his regular-season performance was one to remember — even around an 0-for-22 streak that was part of a 4-for-47 skid. He was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player and finished eighth in the league-wide voting. That after being added to the AL All-Star team in an injury-shortened 2019 season. Called up in August 2018, Lowe has yet to play a full season in the majors. A projection based on what he’s done so far would make for an impressive showing: .270 average, 36 homers, 103 RBIs, .876 OPS.
11. Locked down, bubbled up
The season was played under extensive coronavirus protocols, including daily spit testing and myriad rules to keep players from sharing equipment and space. The most dramatic change came on the road, where players and staff had to stay in their hotels and have meals delivered to their rooms. The final three rounds of the postseason were staged at neutral sites with “bubbles” at resort hotels. The Rays spent 17 days in San Diego playing at the Padres’ Petco Park, then shifted to the Dallas area for the World Series, playing in the Rangers’ new Globe Life Field.
10. All right going left
The Rays made major-league history as the Sept. 11 game started. They were the first team in at least modern times (since 1900) to start nine left-handed batters, with the lineup card going to the Hall of Fame. Teams had used nine hitters who swung from the left side before, but at least one was a switch hitter.
9. Tsutsugo’s moment in time
Extra innings started with a runner on second in 2020 (and again this season). Yoshi Tsutsugo recorded the first leadoff double play Aug. 1 when he flied out leading off the 10th, and Ji-Man Choi was thrown out trying to get to third. … Aaron Loup became the first Rays pitcher to get two wins in one day as he got the W in a suspended game that finished Aug. 16 and the regularly scheduled game. … Choi, a natural lefty, tried hitting right-handed in a big-league game for the first time July 26 and homered in his second at-bat. … The Rays were one of three teams to not try a sacrifice bunt during the regular season. … Cash used different lineups for each of the 60 games.
8. Drama kings
For a team that cruised to the AL’s best record, the Rays sure made things dramatic in the second and third rounds of the playoffs. After having their way with the Yankees during the season in winning eight of 10 games (including 5-1 at Yankee Stadium), they dropped the best-of-five Division Series opener and rallied late to win Game 5. That was nothing compared to the best-of-seven AL Championship Series. The Rays won the first three, then allowed the Astros — emboldened by watching video of the 2004 Red Sox being the only team to complete such a comeback (against the Yankees) — to win three straight before rallying to win Game 7. That made them just the ninth team to play winner-take-all games in the Division and League Championship series, and only the third to win both, joining the 1981 Dodgers and 2012 Giants.
7. Introducing “a whole damn stable”
The final moments of the Rays Sept. 1 game in New York were controversial enough, with Aroldis Chapman — the closer for a Yankees team that had been jousting with the Rays all season over inside pitches and hit batters — throwing a 100.5-mph fastball at the head of Mike Brosseau. Afterward, Rays manager Kevin Cash fired back accusing the Yankees of “poor” judgment, coaching and teaching, plus mishandling the situation and not being accountable. Then he issued a barely veiled threat, inspiring T-shirts and hashtags: “I’ve got a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 miles an hour. Period.”
6. Welcome to the bigs, kid
Shane McClanahan’s performance in his first big-league game wasn’t anything special, coming on in the ninth inning with a 9-3 deficit and allowing a single and a walk before getting the final out. But the circumstances made it historical, Game 1 of the AL Division Series. That made McClanahan, a USF product, the first pitcher in major-league history to make his debut in the postseason. He also joined Kansas City’s Adalberto Mondesi as the only players to appear in a World Series game before a regular-season game.
5. Kevin Cash is a really good manager
Kevin Cash was praised heavily during the regular season, specifically for the way he navigated all the pitching injuries in leading the Rays to the AL’s best record. Having finished third the previous two seasons, he was honored with the AL Manager of the Year award, getting 22 of the 30 first-place votes in balloting done before the playoffs.
4. Kevin Cash is a really #!@& manager
Kevin Cash was criticized heavily for his managing in the World Series, specifically for his decision to remove starter Blake Snell in the sixth inning of Game Six with a 1-0 lead. The Dodgers went ahead against reliever Nick Anderson and closed out the Rays that night. Cash was crucified for the move and accused of following a pre-game script, managing by analytics and having no feel for the game, among other things. Cash was open in defending the move, saying he made the right choice with the wrong result. Other managers say he will live with the move his entire career.
3. The name is Arozarena. Learn it.
Outfielder Randy Arozarena had a pretty good month after getting called up Aug. 30, hitting .281 with seven homers, 11 RBIs and a 1.022 OPS. Then he had an absolutely amazing postseason, breaking or tying records held by legends such as Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter and Babe Ruth, and becoming the first rookie position player to win the MVP award for a League Championship or World Series. Among his postseason marks, Arozarena hit 10 homers (with three or more in three series), rapped 29 hits (with five games of three each) and 14 extra-base hits, and logged 64 total bases. For the 20 games, he hit .377 with 10 homers, 14 RBIs and a 1.273 OPS.
2. ‘Baseball is fun’
Brett Phillips was an unlikely hero in one of the wildest-ever endings to a World Series game. There was Phillips, who hadn’t had an at-bat in 2 ½ weeks or a hit in a month, at the plate with his Rays down by a run in the ninth inning of Game 4. Two on, two outs and, quickly, two strikes. But Phillips singled sharply to center, the Dodgers made a couple misplays, Kevin Kiermaier scored and Randy Arozarena — after falling rounding third — eventually followed, pounding the plate with a broad smile, marking just the third Series game won on a walkoff by a trailing team down to its final out. And there was Phillips, doing an airplane run through the outfield until he nearly passed out, then sharing the joy on national TV with a simple summary: “Man, baseball is fun.”
1. Revenge is sweet
As dramatic as the ending of the World Series’ Game 4 was, the way the Rays won the final game of the Division Series against rancorous rival Yankees was even better. Score tied 1-1 in the eighth, one out, Mike Brosseau batting for the Rays against Aroldis Chapman, the pitcher who threw at his head in the Sept. 1 game. Brosseau battled through 10 pitches, fouling off four of five, then drove the ball over the leftfield fence, giving the Rays a 2-1 lead that quickly would lead to an epic celebration. Several Rays have said — even since the World Series — that the significance of the game, the players involved and the outcome made it the greatest onfield moment they had ever been part of.