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20 Years of Rays Baseball: 2003, a wave of excitement

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A new core is established, but the team still can’t seem to win

Baldelli hits home run Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays were horrible.

They were coming off one of the worst seasons in baseball history as they finished their 2002 campaign with a record of 55-106, with a 15 game losing streak along the way.

Changes needed to be made.

So, as the season came to a close, the Devil Rays fired their manager, Hal McRae, who had taken over for the previously fired Larry Rothschild early on in the 2001 season. McRae’s record as a manager with the Devil Rays may be among the worst ever as he had a winning percentage of .366 (113-196).

The Devil Rays didn’t search long for his replacement, as they already had a candidate in mind: Tampa native and current Seattle Mariners manager, Lou Pinella. Sweet Lou was still under contract with the Mariners, so the Rays needed their permission in order to negotiate with the manager.

The Mariners had been after the Devil Rays lone 2002 All-Star, Randy Winn, since before the trade deadline and now they looked to seize their opportunity. Winn was entering his final year of arbitration before his rookie contract expired. The Mariners allowed the Devil Rays to negotiate and eventually sign Lou Pinella as their new manager, but in exchange they acquired Randy Winn. The Devil Rays receives a prospect in return as well, infielder Antonio Perez.

Piniella waves

The Devil Rays felt comfortable dealing Winn as the next wave of prospects were ready to make their presence known. Carl Crawford had made his MLB debut halfway through the 2002 season and, albeit with some struggles, he was clearly a future star waiting to emerge.

Crawford would slot in as the team’s left fielder, but the Devil Rays still needed to replace their center field spot. That’s where the Woonsocket Rocket, Rocco Baldelli, entered the picture. One of the top prospects in all of baseball, Baldelli was named the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year following his 2002 campaign, as well as their 2nd top prospect behind Mark Teixiera.

Two exciting young stars, to go along with Aubrey Huff (the team’s top offensive performer in 2002), former Rookie of the Year, Ben Grieve, and solid catcher, Toby Hall, the Devil Rays had an enticing core.

During the off-season, the Devil Rays further retooled as they went and acquired embattled short stop, Rey Ordonez from the New York Mets for a couple of players to be named later (Josh Pressley and Russ Johnson). The Devil Rays would continue to fill their roster with journeyman veterans, giving them an opportunity with the likes of Travis Lee and Marlon Anderson getting signed.

Yankees v Devil Rays Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Several players were let go as well with Tanyon Sturtze, Paul Wilson, and Esteban Yan all being dropped during the Winter. Once spring training arrived, the Hit Show experience would finally be eliminated as Greg Vaughn would be released on March 22nd.

Tampa Bay was somewhat excited as the area looked to brush the embarrassment of 2002 away with their hometown iconic Lou Pinella at the helm of the team.

Opening Day came on March 31st and the Boston Red Sox were in town. The game would go on to be one of the most exciting in the early days of the franchise.

Joe Kennedy got the start for Tampa Bay and the Devil Rays just wanted to relive their 2002 season a bit longer as the second batter of the game reached on an error. After a base hit, the first run of the season come around on another error. Both errors came on routine groundballs, the Red Sox would ultimately score three times in the inning.

On the mound for Boston was Pedro Martinez, three runs would surely be enough...

Kennedy pitches Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Pedro would shutdown the Devil Rays offense for the first six innings of the game, meanwhile the Boston offense tacked on another run to give them a 4-0 advantage in the 7th. Tampa Bay would finally break through after a single, hit batter, sac fly, and a fielder’s choice brought one run across.

Heading into the bottom of the 9th, Pedro was out of the game and the Red Sox turned to LHP Alan Embree to close out the 4-1 game.

Travis Lee led off the inning with a single and then Terry Shumpert came on to pinch hit for Al Martin. After a first pitch ball, Shumpert turned on an inside fastball that caught way too much of the plate. The ball sailed just over the left field wall for a two run home run to make it a one run game. Boston chose to stick with Embree for Ben Grieve, but the decision didn’t work out for the Red Sox as Grieve laced a single through the right side.

Having finally seen enough, Alan Embree was taken out of the game for Chad Fox, who would quickly set down the first two batters he faced, but would then walk Marlon Anderson to put runners at first and second with two outs, for Carl Crawford.

The 21-year-old outfielder was anxious, this was his spot. So, he swung at everything Chad Fox threw, fouling off the first four pitches of the at-bat, before finally taking a ball. Now with the count, 1-2, Fox looked to end the game. He threw a breaking ball that he wanted to bury in on Crawford’s feet. He missed his spot.

Crawford put a golf swing on the pitch and blasted the pitch a couple of rows deep into the seats in right-center field for a three run walk-off home run.

It was probably the most exciting night at the Trop since Wade Boggs’ 3,000th hit four years prior.

The Devil Rays struggled in April following that game, but there were still bright spots. Rocco Baldelli had made a splash in his first taste of major league action as he tallied 40 hits, second most in the majors during the month of April.

Rey Ordonez had turned out to be a fantastic acquisition as well as he already equaled his career high in home run, just in the month of April alone and he looked primed to have a breakout season. That is, until he suffered what would turn out to be a career shortening/ending injury in early May.

This caused the Devil Rays to have to immediately seek out short stop help anywhere they could find it. This brought them to 27-year-old Julio Lugo, whom the Houston Astros released following allegations of domestic assault with his wife.

Lugo would join the Devil Rays on May 15th and quickly became one of the top players on the team.

With their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 2002 season, the Devil Rays were rewarded with another number one overall selection in the draft, with it, they took a high school outfielder by the name of Delmon Young.

The Devil Rays had several notable selections during the draft as they picked John Jaso and Chard Orvella. They also had a few guys they didn’t sign that went on to become successful major leaguers: Andrew Miller and Kris Medlen.

Despite the hot start from several of their players, the Devil Rays still struggled over the first half of the season and arrived at the All-Star break with a record of 32-60, including just a dreadful June in which they won five of 26.

However, something happened in July as the Devil Rays went streaking, culminating in Lou Pinella dying his hair blonde...(this actually happened). Lou Pinella had promised the team that if at any point in the season, they won three in a row, he would dye his hair.

The Devil Rays went 14-12 that July, their first winning month since September/October of 2001 and just the 4th winning month in franchise history.

At the trade deadline, the Devil Rays remained quiet, making just one move that sent Al Levine to the Kansas City Royals for cash considerations.

During the closing months of the season, the Devil Rays went back to their hapless ways, but didn’t struggle as mightily as they had during the first half of the season. As the year came to a close, they finished with a record of 63-99 and another last place in finish in the AL East, but seemed like a much better team than the record showed.

Veteran first baseman, Travis Lee led the team in fWAR (3.4), but Julio Lugo, who joined the team in mid-May, finished right on his heels with a mark of 3.2. Aubrey Huff had an offensive explosion as he laid siege to the team’s single-season record book. He finished the year with 34 HR, and slashed .311/.367/.555, good for a 136 wRC+ and 3.1 fWAR.

The kids meanwhile went through some struggles, but ultimately had solid year with Rocco Baldelli finishing third in the Rookie of the Year voting. Carl Crawford struggled offensively but his explosive speed proved to be an asset in the outfield as made several awe-inspiring catches.

The duo’s speed also wreaked havoc on the basepaths with Crawford leading the American League with 55 stolen bases. Rocco Baldelli wasn’t quite on his heels as much, but still finished 7th in the AL with 27 swipes.

On the pitching front, there wasn’t much to be excited about as the Devil Rays boasted the worst pitching staffs in all of baseball, with the exception of the Detroit Tigers who managed to lose 119 games in 2003.

Geremi Gonzalez was one of the bright spots, a minor league free agent signing during the off-season, he ended up having the best year of any starting pitcher on the team and only pitcher on the team to accrue more than 1 fWAR as he finished with 1.7. Next closest was Victor Zambrano, who was treated as the ‘ace’ of the staff.

A promising sign for the future was Doug Waechter, who had made his major league debut during the stretch run and during his second career start, he threw a complete game, two-hit shutout against the Seattle Mariners.

As the door closed on the 2003 season, the Devil Rays had reason for hope with their core of Aubrey Huff, Julio Lugo, Carl Crawford, and Rocco Baldelli locked in for a few seasons and their 2003 campaigns giving excitement for the future. Now, if only they could learn to develop some pitching.