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Where do 2021 Rays rank among franchise’s biggest disappointments?

Yes, 100 regular-season wins were something special. But in a bottom-line business, this team fell quite short of its goal, as did some other Rays teams.
Rays manager Kevin Cash walks to the mound during the third inning of Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox in Boston.
Rays manager Kevin Cash walks to the mound during the third inning of Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox in Boston. [ CHARLES KRUPA | Associated Press ]
Published Oct. 17

A couple weeks ago, we were discussing where the 2021 Rays team ranked among the best in franchise history.

After being bounced from the playoffs by Boston in four games of the American League Division Series, the better question may be where this team may rank among the most disappointing.

And those don’t have to be mutually exclusive descriptions.

With a franchise-record 100 regular-season wins while competing in the rugged and ultra-competitive American League East, where three other teams won at least 91 games and from which both wild-card teams spawned, this Rays team certainly earned its place in team annals.

Plus, the success over the grind of a six-month season — especially given the litany of injuries this team dealt with — is certainly harder fought than the three short series, and 11 wins, to claim a title.

But this is a bottom-line business, in which teams are driven — sometimes maniacally — to win championships. And these Rays made it clear, repeatedly, that their singular goal was to get back to the World Series and avenge last year’s loss.

Finishing with the AL’s best record, earning the top seed and homefield advantage in at least the first two rounds, and matching up with the wild-card team all seemed like a good start on that path.

But getting knocked out in the first round, by a Red Sox team they finished eight games ahead of and beat 11 out of the last 15 times they played (after losing the first four), can’t be considered anything — one bad bounce and two walkoff losses aside — but extremely disappointing.

How much so compared to other Rays teams that fell short?

Conveniently, it’s a short list, as the Rays have played only 24 seasons, and for the first 10 they were miserable, only winning as many as 70 games once. Of the other 14, they made the playoffs seven times, which only three teams exceeded.

The two years the Rays made the World Series, even though they lost in 2008 (to the Phillies) and 2020 (to the Dodgers), have to be considered major successes.

But the other four times the Rays made the playoffs, like this year, they were knocked out in the Division Series. Between those five, and a few seasons when they missed out, here are the other most disappointing teams the 2021 Rays joined:

2009 (84-78, third in AL East)

The acquisition of Pat Burrell didn't help the Rays return to the World Series in 2009.
The acquisition of Pat Burrell didn't help the Rays return to the World Series in 2009. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2009) ]
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What do you do for an encore after ending a decade of losing with a breakthrough season that includes a division title and a magical run to the World Series? Very little, as it turns out. Despite returning the bulk of the 2008 pennant-winning team, and making a (relatively) expensive (and soon-to-be-proven unwise) addition of Pat Burrell, these Rays never seemed to get over their World Series hangover.

Taking it easy in the spring (their first in Port Charlotte) following the long season, they got off to a slow 8-14 start, put together a decent late-May to late-August run (46-29), then totally tanked in September, losing 11 straight and 15 of 17 to finish 19 games behind the East-winning Yankees and 11 behind the wild-card Red Sox. Talk about a letdown.

2010 (96-66, first in AL East, lost to Texas in ALDS)

David Price reacts after a run scores in the sixth inning to give Texas a 3-1 lead during Game 5 of the ALDS at Tropicana Field on Oct. 12, 2010.
David Price reacts after a run scores in the sixth inning to give Texas a 3-1 lead during Game 5 of the ALDS at Tropicana Field on Oct. 12, 2010. [ Times (2010) ]

Arguably the most talented team in Rays history, with three of the franchise’s best-ever position players (Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist), soon-to-be Cy Young Award winner David Price, All-Star closer Rafael Soriano and plenty more high-end talent. Joe Maddon’s team won the East title on the final day, finished with a league-best 96-66 record and got rewarded with an ALDS matchup against the 90-win Rangers, with the first two games at home.

And the Rays fell absolutely flat, losing the Price-started opener 5-1 and the James Shields-started Game 2 6-0. After battling back to win Games 3 and 4 in Texas, they came home for Game 5 — and lost again, Price outdueled by Cliff Lee for the second time. The only history this Rays team made was the first to lose three home games in a best-of-five postseason series.

2011 (91-71, second in AL East, lost to Texas in ALDS)

Jeremy Hellickson waits for Adrian Beltre to round the bases on a solo homer in the fourth inning during the ALDS Game 4 between the Rays and Rangers at Tropicana Field on Oct. 4, 2011.
Jeremy Hellickson waits for Adrian Beltre to round the bases on a solo homer in the fourth inning during the ALDS Game 4 between the Rays and Rangers at Tropicana Field on Oct. 4, 2011. [ Times (2011) ]

This team figured to have momentum given how much it did to get into the playoffs, clinching the wild card with the dramatic Game 162 win (and Red Sox loss), after rallying from nine games out of a playoff spot in September, after overcoming a 1-8 start to the season. And it looked good when they rolled to a 9-0 win in the opener at Texas behind surprise rookie starter Matt Moore.

But things changed dramatically, as they lost three straight in games started by James Shields, David Price and Jeremy Hellickson, the final two at home. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg’s frustration was evident afterward as he mused that financial issues stemming from low attendance kept the Rays from having more talent and “eventually Major League Baseball is going to vaporize this team.”

Three others to consider

2013: Similar to the 2011 team with a dramatic run-up to make the playoffs — winning the final day in Toronto, a Game 163 in Texas and the wild-card game in Cleveland — then losing in the ALDS, this time to Boston. An added element, the odd Wil Myers-Desmond Jennings fly ball mishap that killed their momentum and led to the Game 1 loss.

Desmond Jennings and Wil Myers watch a David Ortiz fly to rightfield bounce out of play for a ground-rule double during a Rays game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park on Oct. 4, 2013.
Desmond Jennings and Wil Myers watch a David Ortiz fly to rightfield bounce out of play for a ground-rule double during a Rays game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park on Oct. 4, 2013. [ Times (2013) ]

2012: A 90-win season was still a downer after back-to-back playoff appearances, as this team fell three games short of the wild card (and five of a division title). More so given a dominating pitching staff with a majors-best 3.19 ERA, and David Price’s Cy Young season.

2000: Yes, this team was from the dark Devil Rays days. But there were legitimately raised expectations given the investment and hype in acquiring Vinny Castilla and Greg Vaughn to pair with Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff to create the Hit Show. Instead, it was another last-place finish (69-92), and a word with one more letter was used to replace Hit.

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