Ahead of what might be the most difficult month of baseball in team history, an AL-East bloodbath in the month of April with three Rays starters injured... let's think happy thoughts, and look back at what might be the greatest month in Devil Rays history.
Heading into June 2004, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had only two winning months in the franchise's short history. The Devil Rays were also having to compete with the NHL as the Lightning were making a push for the Stanley Cup. The only thing D-Rays fans were looking forward to was having one of the top picks in the upcoming draft that might provide some hope for the future and possibility of seeing Fred McGriff launch his 500th career HR.
The month started out on a bad note as the Minnesota Twins won a blowout game over Tampa, 16-4. Paul Abbott would be released the following day due to his poor performance, the D-Rays also claimed Jose Batista off of waivers from the Baltimore Orioles on that date.
The Devil Rays would then string together a three game win streak, which was something to be celebrated back in those days. A few days later on June 7th, they drafted Jeff Niemann out of Rice University with the 4th overall pick in the draft.
The next day the San Francisco Giants came to the Trop to begin a three game series and took game one with ease as Doug Waechter only lasted two innings before leaving with an injury. His replacement did great, but the Devil Rays still lost, 7-3.
The next night featured a pitching duel between Mark Hendrickson and Jason Schmidt. The game entered the bottom of the 8th, with Tampa Bay trailing 0-1. With two outs, and two runners on, Julio Lugo laced a double down the left field line that tied the game. After an intentional walk to load the bases, Toby Hall singled in two runs that gave Tampa Bay the lead.
Unfortunately, Danys Baez blew the save in the 9th and the game went into extra innings. In the bottom of the 10th however, the Devil Rays walked off after future team closer, Tyler Walker, had walked the bases loaded. Jose Cruz Jr. came up and hit a sharp grounder down the right field line to give the D-Rays the victory.
Tampa Bay would take the series finale the next night as team ace, Victor Zambrano earned his 6th win of the season. After taking the series from San Francisco, the Colorado Rockies came to St. Pete, and played a very dramatic game Friday night as the teams battled back and forth as the game went into extra innings.
With one out, Rey Sanchez came up in the bottom of the 10th with the game tied at 7. Sanchez hadn't homered in over two years and no one was expecting what came next. With a 2-2 pitch, Sanchez flared a ball up the right field line. Jeromy Burnitz came in and tried to make a shoe-string catch, only to have the ball bounce under his glove and roll towards the right field corner.
Choo Freeman got to the ball and attempted to get the ball in, but missed the cut off man and Sanchez scored easily with an inside-the-park walk-off HR. The victory gave the Devil Rays their 3rd win in a row.
The next night, the Devil Rays bats remained hot as they scored 10 more runs en route to another victory over the Rockies and they'd take the series finale the day after, thanks to a walkoff single from Julio Lugo.
After an off day on Monday, the Devil Rays traveled to San Diego's new stadium (Petco Park) for the first time. They'd be greeted by an earthquake the registered 5.2 on the richter scale, but were still able to play that night's game and cruised to a 5-2 victory for their 6th straight victory.
On Wednesday, the D-Rays bats carried them to victory once again, which included three triples (two by Carl Crawford and one by Rocco Baldelli). The next night, in the series finale, Fred McGriff blasted his 493rd career homerun (which would be his last) to give Tampa Bay the lead and their eventual 8th straight win.
On Friday, June 18th the Devil Rays traveled to Arizona where they'd take on their expansion partner, the Diamondbacks and one of the most intimidating pitchers ever, Randy Johnson. Tampa Bay was able to score some runs off of Johnson and received a solid performance from John Halama en route to yet another win.
The next day, things were shaky after a bad first inning from Dewon Brazelton in which he gave up three runs, but Tampa Bay came roaring back in the next half inning with seven runs of their own. Rob Bell came on and threw seven excellent shutout innings of relief as the Devil Rays win streak reached double digits.
Sunday featured another pitching duel between Mark Hendrickson and Brandon Webb, that the Devil Rays would go on to win by the score of 2-1. The Devil Rays had swept three straight series and were 14-3 so far in the month of June.
On June 22nd, the Devil Rays went to Toronto to take on the Blue Jays at the Skydome. It began ugly, when Chad Gaudin walked four batters and only managed two outs in the first before being removed, but Travis Harper came on and deliver four scoreless innings and Tampa Bay would go on to win 5-1, for their 12th straight win.
Unfortunately for the D-Rays, they'd lost the next night when the game went into extra innings. It was a great game as Victor Zambrano and Roy Halladay both provided excellent starts for their teams, but after a wild pitch allowed the tying run to score in the 8th, the game went into extra innings. Jesus Colome, who narrowly avoided losing the game in the 9th, lost it in the 10th after a single, a walk, a sac-bunt, and another single that ended the game and the D-Rays team record, 12 game winning streak.
The next afternoon, the Devil Rays were just 12 hours removed from having their longest win streak ever, snapped. They came for vengeance and scored three runs in the first. John Halama, however, gave the lead right back as Toronto scored four runs in the bottom of the first.
Tampa Bay came back to tie the game in the 3rd, then an inning later the Devil Rays chased Ted Lilly from the game and scored four more runs. In the 6th, Jose Cruz Jr (Cruz's homer was the 165th of his career, which tied his father's amount) and Carl Crawford each blasted home runs giving the Devil Rays a 15-4 lead. The 15 runs tied the club record.
Tampa Bay wasn't done yet though as they'd score four times in the 8th and once more in the 9th to total 19 runs. The Devil Rays needed every run as Toronto staged a late rally in the 9th, scoring six runs, but Tampa Bay's lead proved insurmountable as they held on to win, 19-13. The 19 runs is still a team record, though it has been tied once in 2006, but the Tampa Bay also produced 24 hits which hasn't yet been replicated.
The win ended the Devil Rays long road trip, in which they only lost one game. They came back to St. Petersburg, in 3rd place in the AL East and only one game under .500, which seemed unfathomable to fans before the team left. As the team's plane arrived at the airport, they were greeted with a hero's welcome as they entered the terminal.
On June 25th, the Devil Rays played their first game at Tropicana Field since June 13th as 25,000 fans packed the stadium to see them take on the Florida Marlins. Those fans would almost witness history as Dewon Brazelton took a no-hitter into the 8th inning. He'd record the first two outs of the inning, but with his pitch count at 115 pitches, Mike Lowell stepped up to bat. Brazelton battled with Lowell for 8 pitches, before the gold glove third baseman smacked a moonshot to left that got hung up on one of Tropicana Field's catwalks.
It would be ruled a double as the ball never fell back into the field of play, and it would also end Brazelton's night at 125 pitches. He'd leave the field to a standing ovation and the Devil Rays would go on to win 2-0 and reach the .500 mark. Since they reach the .500 mark, the Devil Rays became the first team since the 1899 Louisville Colonels to be 18 games under, then comeback even. Since then, two other teams have done so, the 2006 Florida Marlins and the 2014 Rays.
The Devil Rays would close out the month with a victory and finished it with a 20-6 record, easily making in the best month in team history. Unfortunately, the first game of July was a precursor of what was to come as the Devil Rays fell 0-14. The team managed to stay above .500 until July 8th, then they'd eventually lose 12 straight games towards the end of August. They'd finished the year with a team best, 70-91 record and finished 4th in the AL East, which was the first time in team history that they'd hadn't finished in last.
That June, which was more than 10 years ago, still lives on in my mind as the greatest month in Devil Rays history. From watching some tremendous pitching performance to watching a slugfest, it was actually somewhat meaningful dramatic baseball.