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End of year review in Tampa Bay: August arrives and the Rays get hot

Tampa Bay wins 10 in a row against the Orioles in August while building a safe cushion in the AL East, and an up-and-coming track star from Tampa makes his Olympic debut.
Rays starting pitcher Shane McClanahan was unbeatable in August.
Rays starting pitcher Shane McClanahan was unbeatable in August. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 27, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — The month, in retrospect, was nearly perfect. August began with the Rays holding tight to a half-game lead in the American League East, and it ended with Tampa Bay up by eight games.

In between, Nelson Cruz settled into the middle of the lineup, Wander Franco began to find his groove, Shane McClanahan went 5-0 with a 2.76 ERA and Mike Zunino hit homers in five consecutive games.

We didn’t know it at the time, but it was the last truly great stretch of baseball in the season.

Looking back, the clues were there but they were easy to ignore amidst all of the rallies and routs.

Related: End of year review: Lord Stanley spends another summer in Tampa Bay

For instance, the Rays matched a Major League Baseball record that month by finishing their season series against Baltimore with 18 victories in 19 games. It was a testament to a team that didn’t take days off, but it was also a sign that the Rays were fattening their lead against inferior competition.

“It shows a level of consistency that we talk about a lot,” manager Kevin Cash said.

The front office also continued to show off its wizardry by bringing in obscure relief pitchers on a near-daily basis. At one point in the month, seven different relievers recorded a save in succession.

“The Rays, the land of opportunity, the land of misfits,” reliever Louis Head said. “I mean, it’s definitely cool to watch everything come to fruition.”

Yet the constant churning of the roster is not allowed in the postseason, and it was one more sign that Tampa Bay’s pitching staff was not as stable as you would like come the fall.

Still, it’s hard to look back on August with anything but fond memories. The Rays went 21-6 to completely frustrate the Yankees, who had their best month of the season and failed to make up any ground in the standings.

The Paris Olympics are right around the corner

Tampa's Erriyon Knighton, right, and Qatar's Femi Ogunode race to the finish line in a semifinal of the men's 200 meters at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Tampa's Erriyon Knighton, right, and Qatar's Femi Ogunode race to the finish line in a semifinal of the men's 200 meters at the 2020 Summer Olympics. [ PETR DAVID JOSEK | Associated Press ]

The U.S. Olympic team had not seen anything like Erriyon Knighton in more than a generation. At 17 years old, the Hillsborough High sprinter was the youngest male athlete on the U.S. track team since miler Jim Ryun in 1964. Knighton finished fourth in the 200 meters with a time of 19.93, less than two-tenths of a second away from a medal.

“It’s all new to me,” Knighton said of the Olympic experience. “Every day I learn something new from everyone who has experience being here.”

At least the season began the right way for Jameis

When you have every starter returning from a Super Bowl lineup, there isn’t a whole lot of drama in the following training camp. But Bucs fans were paying attention to a roster battle down the road in New Orleans. After serving as an understudy in Drew Brees’ final season in the NFL, the Saints named Jameis Winston as their 2021 starter ahead of Taysom Hill in the final week of August.

“Both he and Taysom competed their tails off,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.

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Related: End of year review in Tampa Bay: A Wander-ful addition for Tampa Bay

From the “What could have been” files

Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow, wearing a brace on his throwing arm following his Tommy John surgery, watches from the dugout during a game against the White Sox.
Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow, wearing a brace on his throwing arm following his Tommy John surgery, watches from the dugout during a game against the White Sox. [ STEVE NESIUS | Associated Press ]

Ever since Tyler Glasnow left the mound with a discomfort in his elbow earlier in the summer, the Rays had been hoping that rest and rehab might be all he needed. By the first week of August, they knew that was no longer a strategy. Glasnow, who was 5-2 with a 2.66 ERA, underwent a hybrid version of Tommy John surgery on Aug. 4, and likely won’t pitch again until 2023.

Related: End of year review in Tampa Bay: Getting feisty in April

Words to remember

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, with Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, backstage at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 8.
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, with Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, backstage at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 8. [ RICK STROUD | Times ]

“I need to make sure he’s really done. Can’t risk this guy coming back.” Bucs quarterback Tom Brady explaining why he went to Canton to take part in Peyton Manning’s Hall of Fame induction.

• • •

“Life last year was uncertain. A lot of uncertainty. Will I even get the chance to play football? Being suspended. So I’ll always remember at that point last year where I was at to make sure I appreciate having the right perspective and being grateful that I’m in this point right here.” Antonio Brown expressing his gratitude in training camp for getting a second chance with the Bucs.

Related: End of year review in Tampa Bay: The Kuch comeback!

• • •

“Fighting? I didn’t see any fighting. A lot of pushing and shoving, but I didn’t see any fists thrown.” Head coach Bruce Arians explaining his definition of fighting after seeing five skirmishes between Bucs and Titans players in a joint practice.

• • •

“Coach was the kind of man that used his faith and wisdom to shape boys into men.” Former FSU and Bucs running back Warrick Dunn at a memorial service for Bobby Bowden.

On second thought

Coaching in the Olympics continues to elude the Lightning's Jon Cooper.
Coaching in the Olympics continues to elude the Lightning's Jon Cooper. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Back-to-back Stanley Cup titles will get you noticed in international hockey circles, and the Canadian Olympic team wisely named Jon Cooper in August as the nation’s hockey coach for the upcoming Beijing Winter Games. Unfortunately, ongoing problems with the pandemic in December meant the NHL had to bow out of the Olympics. Is it a dream come true if it never happens?

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