Worst to first.
It is a cliche that is too often used now in the sports world. Even the Boston Red Sox seem to constantly recycle that tagline.
But, when it comes to the Tampa Bay
Devil Rays, it just feels right.
With the completion of the 2007 season, most people around the game felt the Devil Rays were on the verge of playing respectable baseball. Years of turmoil had finally given birth to a strong, solid core that featured excellent starting pitching and a decent offense.
But playing in the toughest division in baseball, the Rays still seemed a few years short of truly contending.
The first big off season move had nothing to do with onfield talent, however. When Stuart Sternberg took control of the team following the 2005 season, he had wanted to change the way the team was viewed, and following the 2007 he decided they needed a complete new look. So, on November 8th, 2007, the team exorcised the Devil — dropping the d-word and re-launching as the Tampa Bay Rays. The new Rays also had new colors and a new uniform.
A franchise altering look would soon be followed by a franchise altering trade as the Rays traded their former number one prospect, Delmon Young, to the Minnesota Twins along with Brendan Harris (who enjoyed a breakout season with Tampa in 2007) and minor league outfielder, Jason Pridie.
In return, the Rays plugged two needs on their roster as they acquired the Twins former top prospect, Matt Garza, and short stop Jason Bartlett. A minor league pitcher, Eduardo Morlan, came to the Rays as well.
Garza would slot in the Rays starting rotation, behind Scott Kazmir and James Shields, giving the Rays arguably one of the best 1-2-3’s in the American League and finally solidifying their starting staff. Meanwhile, Jason Bartlett had been a fantastic short stop for the Twins and would take over the Rays starting short stop job in 2008.
Almost immediately after the trade was announced, the Rays made another move, signing free agent veteran reliever Troy Percival to a two year deal.
Percival had been in the same dugout as Joe Maddon before, when they both were a part of the 2002 World Series-winning Los Angeles Angles. Maddon personally called Percival to urge him to sign with Tampa Bay, convincing him that the team had a real chance to make the postseason.
That was just the start of a busy off-season for the Rays as later on they would trade troublesome prospect, Elijah Dukes, to the Washington Nationals. They continued to fine tune their roster as they brought in veteran additions like Eric Hinske, Cliff Floyd, and Trevor Miller to help round out the club’s needs.
In January, the Rays reached an agreement with Carlos Pena on a three year extension. Pena had just broken out as one of the top offensive players in baseball in 2007, clubbing 47 home runs.
With a deep roster, it looked like the Rays could enjoy the first winning season in their history.
And for once, the optimism of spring training was not instantly smashed during the first month of the season. On May 1, the Rays were actually tied for first place in the American League East with a record of 16-12.
Of course, the baseball world knew that wouldn’t last, and let’s face it, many fans probably were waiting for the losing shoe to drop. But defying expectations, the Rays continued at that pace. By the beginning of June, the Rays were actually in solo control of first place in the American League East and also had the best record in the American League at 35-22.
The Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox had begun to take a decent sized lead in the division, making the American League East an early two horse race with a crucial series set to kick off the month of June.
The Rays and Red Sox had several run-ins in the past, with the infamous Gerald Williams and Pedro Martinez fracas in 2000 in a game in which ultimately eight Devil Rays were ejected. Over the years, Rays-Red Sox contests had resulted in numerous beanballs, bench clearings, and even a bat being tossed at a pitcher. Of course no one ever considered this a real rivalry, as it was just the top of the food chain Red Sox beating up on the cellar dwelling Rays.
2008 was different.
The Rays and Red Sox were now battling for first place, meeting for three games in Fenway Park the first week of June. And things got really wild.
First, there was the June 4th game, a Rays loss:
- Red Sox OF Coco Crisp reached first and stole second base, but jammed his thumb into Jason Bartlett’s knee that was blocking second base.
- Crisp reached base once more and again stole second base, this time taking out Rays 2B, Akinori Iwamura with a slide that would now be considered illegal.
- Rays Manager Joe Maddon, on the field for mound visit, had a few words for Crisp, presumably not “that was a nice, professional play, Coco!”
Then, on June 5th, Coco Crisp came up for his first at bat, and Rays starter James Shields drilled him on the leg. Crisp charged the mound and, well, if you like baseball brawls check out the video. (And consider how lucky we were that Crisp ducked when Shields attempted to clock him with his right hand).
The Rays went on to get swept over the three games, losing their grasp on first place. Many Rays fans, and no doubt most Red Sox fans, assumed that Tampa Bay’s improbable run would end there.
In the draft, which took place shortly after the brawl in Boston, the Rays had the first overall selection (second year in a row having that dubious honor) and with it, they took a high school shortstop by the name of Tim Beckham.
But now back to the playing field. In the series that followed ‘Fight Night at Fenway’ the Rays skirmishing didn’t stop but this time it was a case of “friendly fire:” Matt Garza and Dioner Navarro got into it during a game against the Texas Rangers.
It all seemed to work out for the best, though; following that altercation, Garza, who had experienced his ups and downs, settled in to deliver a great year for the Rays.
Following that very eventful week and a West Coast swing, the Rays kicked it up a notch. They were victorious in 17 of 21 contests from June 13th to July 6th, but hit a slump, losing seven games in a row, just before the All-Star break. Again, smart baseball minds knew that this just represented the Rays expected regression to their projected win totals.
However, they were still just in second place and a half game out of the division lead.
The Rays had several players enjoying career years, helping to them to their current spot in the baseball landscape.
Scott Kazmir had missed the first month of the season, but returned in May and would be named the top pitcher in baseball for that month. Meanwhile James Shields was quietly among the top ten starting pitchers in the American League over the first half of the season.
As a whole, the Rays had one of the top five starting rotations in all of baseball. The bullpen had taken a huge leap forward and was getting better as the season went on. Along the way, the Rays made several very minor tweaks to their roster in order to improve. They claimed 1B/OF Dan Johnson of waivers and acquired OF Gabe Gross from the Milwaukee Brewers.
Top prospect Evan Longoria, had made his major league debut in early April following an injury to Willy Aybar. Longoria took the opportunity and ran with it and by the All-Star break, he was among the top ten players in baseball. The Rays knew they had a special player early on and after his first week in the majors, they signed him to a deal that could keep him in Tampa Bay through the 2014 season.
Following the All-Star break, the Rays snapped their losing skid and regained their possession of the American League East. By the time the trade deadline came, the Rays were securely in first place with a three game lead over Boston and a record of 64-44.
(To be continued)