Earlier today, I was playing around with Baseball Reference's Play Index, which is just one of the most amazing baseball things to have ever hit the internet.
Using it, there is way to seek out games throughout the Rays history in which players had the greatest WPA (Win Probability Added), looking for the moment that a Rays player gave his team the greatest chance of winning in one dramatic event.
As I was reading through the numbers, a name stuck out to me that was surprising... Andy Sheets.
Sheets, for those unaware, was one of the wandering quad-a players that was brought in during the merciless years in the early days of the franchise. He has a few ties to Rays history as he helped turned the first triple play in franchise history and he was also taken by the Rays in the expansion draft in 1997, but was flipped for John Flaherty.
So, the reason for writing this, is to bring one of Sheets greatest achievements as a ballplayer to lite and to earn him some appreciation and that he truly deserves as I'll be counting down the top five games in Rays history by WPA starting today with numbers five and four.
#5 - Sam Fuld's Mad Dash Around the Bases
August 10th, 2011 against the Kansas City Royals
WPA - .801
Every win was crucial down the stretch in 2011 as the Rays embarked on a historic playoff run that September. Each loss was devastating and each win was invigorating, but before that September push dawned, there was this Sam Fuld game.
Fuld had already reached legendary status for his early season heroics, but this game's final moments will always be etched into my mind.
Entering the bottom of the 9th, the Rays were trailing 7-3. The game had been much closer, but the Rays bullpen surrendered three runs in the top half of the inning, just moments after the Rays had clawed back into the game during the eighth to make it a one run game. Coincidentally, Sam Fuld (representing the tying run) had been picked off third base in the 8th.
The Rays had been able to tack on a couple of runs against the usually impenetrable Joaquin Soria when Sam Fuld stepped up hoping to redeem himself for his blunder an inning earlier. He was 1-1 on the day and had also walked three times. The Rays had already scored three rimes by the time Fuld reached the batter's box, so they now trailed by one, but were down to their final out with Elliot Johnson being the lone runner at first base.
The count reached 1-1, when Fuld was able to punish a mistake from Soria and send it soaring into deep right-center field and taking a bounce before ricocheting off the wall. Johnson scored easily from first, while Fuld himself was motoring around the bases. The Royals outfield got the ball in quickly though to the relay man, Johnny Giavotella, who had a chance to nab Fuld at third base.
Giavotella beamed a throw towards third and, if it were on target they probably would have gotten Fuld out, but the ball bounced by the third baseman as Fuld slid headfirst through the bag. As the ball headed towards the Royals dugout, Fuld jumped up and made a mad dash for home plate and slid in headfirst just milliseconds before the throw reached the catcher, safe. Fuld rolled over in celebratory fashion and then was mobbed on the ground by his teammates.
#4 - Andy Sheets' Battle Pays Off
August 15th, 2002 Against the Cleveland Indians
WPA - .865
Yes, Andy Sheets is responsible for the 4th highest WPA in franchise history. He did it in a game that if it had happened in more recent days, would be one of the most remembered in franchise history. Unfortunately, it happened in 2002, so it was swept under the rug to never be seen from again...except for now as I will dredge it back up.
The Indians and Rays engaged in a classic pitcher's duel as Jake Westbrook and Joe Kennedy battled it out on the mound. The Rays record was 39-80, which is just ridiculous, while the Indians stood at 53-65 which seems so, so much better. Both pitchers went eight innings, and both pitchers allowed just one run. Kennedy had somehow walked five batters and struck out none over those eight innings, something that has only happened once in the majors since that time.
Anyway, the game was tied at one entering the ninth and Hal McRae called upon Travis Harper, the team's only full-time reliever that year that wasn't totally horrible. In the span of his first two pitches in the ninth, Harper gave up a leadoff single and then surrendered a two run homer to Karim Garcia to give the Indians a two run lead. Cleveland would go away quietly following that home run.
Entering the bottom of the ninth, the Rays now trailed 3-1. However, Tampa Bay quickly threatened, after Carl Crawford grounded out to start the inning, both Aubrey Huff and Steve Cox singled. Huff would move over to third base on a flyout to place runners on the corners with two away for Andy Sheets. Poetically, it was John Flaherty, the player the Rays had obtained for Sheets, that failed to come through and hit the flyout.
Sheets had done nothing but hit for the Rays since his promotion a month prior, entering play having slashed .293/.348/.517 over 16 games, having also connected for three home runs over that stretch. He was now up two outs and in a position to possibly tie or even win the game for the Rays.
Sheets quickly fell behind Mark Wohler, a former All-Star with the Atlanta Braves who nearing the end of his major league career, 0-2. However, he took the next three pitches for ball to put him at the penultimate count of 3-2 with two outs, runners on the corners, and down by two.
Wohler delivered the 3-2 pitch and Sheets was able to square it up and wallop it into the seats in left field, for a walk-off three run home run, providing the Rays with a 4-3 victory over the Cleveland Indians.