The Rays headed into the 2008 trade deadline in an unfamiliar position. They were in first place in the division and had one of the best records in baseball. They had an exciting group of players that were cheap and under contract for a few more years.
In the minor leagues, another enticing group of prospects were set to make their impact on the major league roster, whether it be to help down the stretch in 2008 or in 2009.
The major league roster was almost perfect. Almost. They needed a starting right fielder who could contribute to their offense.
Jason Bay, outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, seemed like the perfect fit for the Rays, but would come at a steep price. Amid the craziness of deadline day, the Rays had seemingly acquired Bay, according to some reports. But the rumors provided were premature, whether because the Rays were unwilling to part with key prospects, or because the Pirates just preferred the offer from another trade partner.
Sadly that trade partner was the Boston Red Sox. So the Rays not only lost the chance to improve their team; they also saw their rival get better.
It was a tough blow for Rays fans, as the team stood pat at the deadline. However, a week later, they did make a waiver trade with the Baltimore Orioles, acquiring RHP Chad Bradford, to further improve the already solid bullpen.
August would be rough, but still fun for fans of the team. One of the greatest comebacks in franchise history took place just a week into the month as the Rays came back from a 6-3 ninth inning deficit to win, 6-10 in typical Rays 2008 walk-off fashion.
Unfortunately in the week following the victory, the Rays would lose both Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria to the disabled list. Despite their respective absences, the Rays lead in the division actually grew thanks to the lineup remaining stellar (10 of the 15 players with at least 20 PA, had a wRC+ of 115 or higher). The oft-injured Rocco Baldelli made his return to the Rays at this time and helped keep the team afloat.
It was now September and the Rays were still in first place in the American League East.
That month started off poorly, as Rays losses allowed the Red Sox to close in to within a half game at the start of play on Tuesday, September 9th. As fate would have it, the Rays were playing in Boston at Fenway Park, where they had failed to collect a victory all season.
Prior to the game, the Rays had taken advantage of their expanded roster, selecting the contracts of C Michel Hernandez and 1B Dan Johnson from Triple-A Durham to add some depth. Johnson was supposed to start the game for the Rays, but bad weather delayed his flight and his arrival at Fenway. He was therefore unavailable to start...although he could be used off the bench later in the game.
That brings us to the ninth inning with the Rays trailing 4-3 and the Red Sox assiduous closer, Johnathan Papelbon, looking to nail down yet another save against the Rays.
Dan Johnson had other ideas. Brought in to pinch hit, six pitches later Tampa Bay had a new favorite player. Johnson sent a ball into the seats beyond the right field bullpen for a game tying solo home run and the legend of Dan Johnson was born. The Rays would take the lead a few hitters later and Troy Percival would hold down a nail biting save, ensuring the Rays would leave Boston with the division lead intact.
A week later, the Red Sox came to Tropicana Field and the Rays made sure they never sniffed first place again that season.
On September 20th, the Rays defeated the Minnesota Twins, 7-2. Evan Longoria, activated off of the disabled list at the start of the month, would caught the final out, a pop-up, and the Rays had clinched a play-off berth.
A decade of embarrassment and disappointment had culminated in being one of the best and most exciting teams in baseball. The Rays would eventually take the American League East division title.
For their match up in the playoffs, the Rays would take on the Chicago White Sox, the champions of the American League Central division.
In the first game, the Rays immediately established dominance as their Rookie of the Year candidate, Evan Longoria, homered during his first two plate appearances. Later on in the game, during a tense moment between the two teams, Rays reliever Grant Balfour and White Sox short stop Orlando Cabrera got into a verbal altercation which ended with a strikeout and Balfour gesturing to Cabrera to “Sit the F%$& down!”
The Rays would eventually take the series in four games, punching their ticket to the American League Championship Series to take on the Boston Red Sox, who had entered the playoffs as the Wild Card winners.
The enthralling seven game series between these teams featured would take place that featured two walk-off victories, heroics from expected and unexpected places, and lots and lots of home runs.
The Rays dropped game one in lackluster fashion as the offense failed to show up. During game two, both sides exchanged the lead a couple of times, but the Rays took home the victory in walk-off fashion thanks to a B.J. Upton sacrifice fly.
The series then moved to Boston where the Red Sox were seen as the heavy favorite to take the series advantage. Then the Rays decided to just hit every pitch out of the ballpark to take any hope Boston had of securing the series away. The Rays would take games three and four, outscoring the Red Sox, 22-5 over the two contests.
Game five, again at Fenway, seemed like it would mean the exit for the Red Sox from the post-season as the Rays gained an early advantage and held a 7-0 lead entering the bottom of the 7th. But, you can’t predict baseball as the Rays vaunted bullpen would surrender the lead and the Red Sox walked off after scoring eight runs over three innings. Many Rays fans have erased this game, along with the national media obsession with Boston’s “heart”, from their memories.
Back at the Trop now, the Red Sox would force a seventh game as they took game six.
The Rays turned to Matt Garza for that deciding game. The high-strung righty delivered, as he held the Red Sox to a run over seven innings pitched before turning it over to the bullpen in the eighth inning. The Rays offense had some well timed hits to gain the lead and the Rays were up 3-1, when Joe Maddon’s chess match began.
Joe Maddon would go to the bullpen four times during the eighth inning. During his last trip to the mound, with two outs and the bases loaded, Maddon turned to his top prospect, David Price. The phenomenal southpaw had made his major league debut less then a month prior and had a grand total of seven major league games under his belt.
Price proceeded to follow the script of every cheesy Hollywood baseball film. He strikes out J.D. Drew swinging to end the frame and leaves the mound emphatically yelling into his glove in excitement. The Rays were three outs away from the World Series.
Joe Maddon entrusted his young rookie to get the three most important outs in franchise history as he had no one up in the bullpen. Price would give everyone an early heart attack as he walked the leadoff batter, but then set down the next two hitters looking. Jed Lowrie represented the Red Sox final hope, but David Price would shatter any thoughts of a comeback as he got Lowrie to hit a groundball to Iwamura at second, who stepped on the bag to retire the side and send the Rays to their first ever World Series.
That’s where the fairy tale ends for the Rays.
During the World Series, the Rays would take on the Philadelphia Phillies.
The first two games took place in St Pete with the two sides splitting the games.
In Philadelphia, the Phillies laid siege to the Rays pitching staff, much like the Rays had done in Boston. Poor weather destroyed the playing field. During game five, the play would actually have to be suspended due the monsoon that hit Citizen’s Bank Park. It took over 48 hours before play could be resumed, during which time the Rays were forced to relocate to a hotel in Wilmington, Delaware. The Rays would ultimately drop all three game in Philadelphia and lose the series, four games to one.
At the end of the season, Evan Longoria was named the American League Rookie of the Year and Joe Maddon received the American League Manager of the Year.
The Rays had gone worst to first, the first team since the 1991 Atlanta Braves to finish the prior season with the league’s worst record and then to win their division the following year.
It was thanks to several players having fantastic campaigns. Evan Longoria accrued 5.6 fWAR over just 122 games. B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, Gabe Gross, and Eric Hinske all delivered 2+ fWAR seasons and only one player was below replacement level with at least 100 plate appearances (Jonny Gomes (-0.9)).
On the pitching side of things, James Shields took the mantle from Scott Kazmir as the team’s ace, as he put up a fantastic season and showed an ability to deliver in big situations. Andy Sonnanstine actually performed as the team’s second best starter over the season. Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir, and Edwin Jackson were about as good as you could ask for to round out the rest of the rotation.
The Rays were on the cusp of winning it all in 2008, but they knew their time hadn’t passed. 2008 was just the beginning, in 2009 they would be able to field pretty much the same team and improve in several areas. The Rays dynasty had officially begun.