Once the World Series concluded, several key Rays players became free agents. Carl Crawford ended his nine-year run with the team, the longest of any player in franchise history. Joining him in free agency were other key components of the 2010 Rays, including Carlos Pena, Rafael Soriano, and Joaquin Benoit and several others.
Carl Crawford would twist the knife even more once he signed nine-figure deal with the Rays’ arch-rival Boston Red Sox.
Meanwhile, the Rays looked to trim payroll and cash in on a couple of their core players’ solid performances. They traded Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza, bringing a total of nine players back in the process. Jason Bartlett was sent to the San Diego Padres for three relief pitchers (Adam Russell, Brandon Gomes, and Cesar Ramos), plus a utility infielder in the lower levels on the minor leagues, Cole Figueroa.
Matt Garza netted a major prospect haul as the Rays traded him along with Fernando Perez and Zac Rosscup to the Chicago Cubs for RHP Chris Archer, SS Hak-Ju Lee, C Robinson Chirinos, and outfielders Brandon Guyer and Sam Fuld.
Archer, Lee, and Guyer had been ranked as three of the Cubs top-ten prospects by Baseball America when the trade went down, with Archer being rated as the number one prospect in their system.
The Rays would eventually make several additions to their roster following the mass exodus of their core.
They re-signed LHP J.P. Howell and brought in fierce veteran reliever, RHP Kyle Farnsworth. They also signed RHP Joel Peralta and RHP Juan Cruz. To fill the void left by Carlos Pena’s departure, the Rays signed Felipe Lopez and Casey Kotchman to compete for first base with Dan Johnson.
The Rays would also make a couple of major additions as they signed two free agents as part of a package deal, agreeing to contracts with the duo of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.
An exciting time ensued in Tampa Bay as fans, media, and players alike prepped for Manny’s time with the team. The front office had already drawn up a ‘Manny dreadlocks’ promotion to giveaway at some point in the season.
Spring training came and went without a hitch and Opening Day had arrived.
The Rays would lose on Opening Day, and then they’d lose the next game, and the next one, eventually losing their first six games in a row. Manny Ramirez had left the team following the fifth game citing what the team called a ‘family matter.’ Unfortunately, as the team took off for their first road series of the year, it was announced that Manny Ramirez had tested positive for a performance enhancing drug and had been suspended for 100 games by Major League Baseball. Rather than serve the punishment, Ramirez would retire from the game, leaving the Rays with a huge hole on their roster.
The Rays were 0-6, they hadn’t had a lead in a game all season, they had just lost their starting designated hitter, oh, and Evan Longoria had pulled a hamstring during their third game of the season leading to him missing the first month of the season. Things were bleak.
Then, Dan Johnson came up in the top of the ninth inning during a game in Chicago with the Rays trailing. Johnson would launch a three run home run to give the Rays their first lead of 2011 and ultimately their first victory.
That was the turning point.
After losing their next two games to drop their record to 1-8, the Rays met up with the Boston Red Sox at Fenway. Boston had undergone an offseason of change with the aforementioned Carl Crawford signing, they had also brought in Adrian Gonzalez to be their starting first baseman.
Boston, however, was somehow off to just as poor a start as the Rays, sporting a record of 2-7 when the Rays came to town.
A legend would be born during that brief two-game series as the Rays took both. Small in stature, huge in heart, Sam Fuld made his name known as he chose a second double over a cycle while playing against his hometown team in Boston.
Fuld would continue to thrive for the Rays, both on the offensive side of things as well as in the outfield where he made awe inspiring plays, sacrificing his body to do so.
Casey Kotchman joined the Rays during the Chicago series and quickly became one of the top hitters in baseball, averaging over .330 for most of the regular season.
Things had picked up in Tampa Bay as the team went streaking and climbed over the .500 mark by the end of April. Evan Longoria returned in early May and on May 12th, the Rays would take the division lead.
The Rays would tread water over the next few months, they lost their hold of first place in the division by the end of May and struggled to remain a few games over .500.
The 2011 draft had been deemed one of the most important events in franchise history by the front office. The unusual amount of free agents the Rays had lost during the offseason, led to an increased amount of selections towards the top end of the draft. The Rays had 12 of the first 89 selections in the draft.
- Taylor Gurrieri - 24th
- Mikie Mahtook - 31st
- Jake Hager - 32nd
- Brandon Martin - 38th
- Tyler Goeddel - 41st
- Jeff Ames - 42nd
- Blake Snell - 52nd
- Kes Carter - 56th
- Grayson Garvin - 59th
- James Harris - 60th
- Granden Goetzman - 75th
- Lenny Linsky - 89th
The Rays would also go onto select several future big leaguers, Jake Faria and Taylor Motter.
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox had begun to run away with the division and American League Wild Card spot. On July 27th, the Rays, were 11.5 games back of the Boston Red Sox, who led the division.
The trade deadline came and went with little fanfare, as the Rays didn’t make a move. They felt content with their roster with the playoffs looking like an impossible goal, the team would give their current players a chance to thrive... they took advantage.
After going 11-15 during the month of July, the Rays went on a run in August, winning 18 of 28. The surge included five walk-off victories, however, despite their winning ways, the Rays hadn’t gained much ground in the playoff race. On September 1st, the Rays were 8.5 games behind the New York Yankees for the Wild Card spot, with the Boston Red Sox holding a half game lead over New York for the division.
It would take a massive collapse for the Rays to have a chance, fortunately a certain team was happy to oblige.
Over the month of September, several Rays excelled as they chased down a playoff spot and on September 28th, 2011,the final day of the regular season, the Rays had caught the Boston Red Sox.
Boston had seen their division lead disappear, and soon after their Wild Card lead quickly evaporated over the course of 28 days as they struggled mightily in September, going 7-19.
The night of September 28th, 2011 would go on to be called the greatest night in baseball history as so many games had huge repercussions on the playoffs, with several of the most crucial games turning out to be the most intense, nail biting games that most fans have ever, and will ever see, as nothing will likely ever compare to that night of games again.
The Rays and Red Sox were tied for the Wild Card.
To quickly summarize the events of the night.
- Rays fall behind 7-0, Boston takes a 3-2 lead.
- Rain delay in Baltimore
- Rays rally in the 8th, score six times. Then Dan Johnson hits a game tying HR in the 9th.
- Game resumes in Baltimore
- Baltimore ties the game in the 9th, then walks off after Carl Crawford fails to make a sliding catch
- Evan Longoria lines a walk-off HR minutes later, Rays clinch the American League Wild Card.
The Rays wouldn’t have much time to rest from their exhilarating night with the American League Division Series kicking off just under 48 hours later.
Starting game one of the ALDS for Tampa Bay, would be none other than Matt Moore. The uber-pitching prospect who had just made his MLB debut in the days leading up to Game 162.
Matt Moore dominated for Tampa Bay, holding the Texas Rangers scoreless for seven innings as the Rays cruised to a 9-0 game one victory. Unfortunately, the Rays mojo had finally run out as they faltered over the next three contests and lost the series to the Rangers in four games.
Still, the 2011 Rays did what no one could have possibly predicted as they overcame a mass exodus of their core players from the previous winning seasons. They were nearly 10 games back at the start of September, but somehow, over 28 days, they bridged the gap and provided the baseball world with one of the greatest sports nights that has ever been witnessed.