With 2018 drawing to a close and the Rays officially eliminated from the playoffs, just six games before the conclusion of the regular season, it’s time to remember all the good times from this surprisingly fun season.
So I asked the masthead, what was your favorite moment of 2018?
The Angels series, when Sergio Romo “debuted” The Opener roll. Of course, “debut” is a misnomer. The Tony Larussa Athletics had played around with the idea, and, even on the Rays, even this year, Romo wasn’t the first — that honor belongs to Andrew Kittredge. But no one pays attention to what middle relievers on bad teams are doing. The rest of the baseball world already knew who Sergio Romo was, so the decision to slip him into the first inning was about taking the strategy to prime time.
It was a perfect situation for Romo, with a lefty bulk guy (Ryan Yarbrough) ready and an Angels order stacked with dangerous right-handed bats. There would never be a better time to bring the strategy into the spotlight. Still, baseball being baseball, it could easily have failed, the way talking heads across the baseball spectrum desperately wanted it to.
Romo struck out the side. Then he worked a clean first inning again the next day. Cue mass hysteria.
Anyone who was paying attention this off-season knew that the Rays were retooling, not rebuilding, like so many half-baked blowhards were smugly shouting about on national media sites before the season. When Orioles fans claim that your team is going to be a 100-loss tanker, you can sense the way the winds are blowing.
That is why July 1st stands alone as the premier moment of the season. I guess it’s fitting that it took a series win against the Astros before the Rays could really launch themselves into space. The Rays finished off a Month of Terror, going 8-1 against the Yankees, Nationals, and Astros to stave off a nasty June Swoon and finally, finally, move above .500. None of these games were particularly dramatic, but that last win against Houston proved that this team had talent, and was not going anywhere any time soon.
My favorite moment of the year was Jonny Venters comeback finally arriving.
The dude had gone through 2.5 Tommy John surgeries and hadn’t pitched on a major league mound since 2012. Naturally, he came in and, despite a diminished velocity, was carving through hitters once again as a high leverage, dependable reliever.
The Rays traded him to Atlanta — with whom he spent the peak of his career — so he could potentially pitch in the playoffs for his original organization.
That is the most sappy, romantic, beautiful baseball thing ever.
Ji-Man Choi comes up to the bat against lock-down left handed reliever Brad Hand. The Rays are down one and trying to keep their slim playoff hopes alive after Tommy Pham singled to give him the opportunity to win the game with one swing. He hits a high fly ball. Is it deep enough? It floats over the right field wall for the win. What ensued encapsulated the Rays season. They found themselves in a hole and worked their way back just like they found themselves the first few weeks into the season. Choi rounded the bases in the most 2018 Rays way possible. It ended with an arrow and a dance party at home plate.
Two words: Trade Deadline.
With the trade of Chris Archer for what already seems like a king’s ransom, I went on the record proclaiming the Rays were sellers at the 2018 Trade Deadline, and why wouldn’t they be? The Rays could barely win a game in April and were in a painfully obvious rebuild effort. The odds of playoff contention were slim and seemingly unrealistic, and the probable face of the franchise in year of our lord 2018 had been dealt.
In an environment where the Rays had to roll with starters behind openers due to the lack of typical starters (Tommy John struck Brent Honeywell, Anthony Banda, and Jose De Leon in pre-season), a team trading its veteran starter for a rookie and two prospects felt like they’d waived the flag.
Then Tommy Pham happened.
In a second stroke of genius, the Rays flipped two prospects facing the 40-man roster crunch for a near-MVP on the outs with his manager and team, in need of a fresh start to continue his 6-win pace of play.
The Rays were not sellers, they were contenders for the playoffs until September 25th.
Sometimes I love being wrong.
Trying to pick one favorite moment from the 2018 season is so incredibly tough. As a season, this might rank just behind 2008 and 2011 in all my all-time Rays and Devil Rays fandom. I can picture every step in the home run trots of the Rays walkoff bombs. Sergio Romo and the Rays breaking the baseball world’s minds with “The Opener” and its big primetime debut. But for my pick for favorite moment in the 2018 Rays season, I want to talk about when Blake Snell became the Ace of the Rays.
April 27th, Fenway Park, Boston. The Rays were still fighting to get back to .500 after a terrible start, mostly thanks to the Red Sox. The Red Sox, conversely, were off to a blazing hot start at 19-5. One thing that seemed impossible to shout out among the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Rays abysmal start was how well the Rays were actually playing. They went 1-6 against the Red Sox before this game, but five of those losses were by just one run. These Rays weren’t pushovers, they just couldn’t get over the hump.
That was, until Blake Snell took the mound, looking to prove to Boston and the national media that the Rays can hang with any team this year. Snell delivered a gem.
Through the first four innings, he had the Red Sox batters dancing, 5 Ks and 0 hits. In the fifth inning, the Red Sox finally reached base, only the be erased in quick measure by Snellzilla. The Red Sox dangerous lineup was able to tag him for a few doubles and a couple of runs, but Blake Snell was a different pitcher than what we saw the year previous. He wasn’t rattled, he didn’t start nibbling the corners. He trusted that his stuff was better than Boston’s, and it was. Snell finished the game with a sexy line: 7.2 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, and 9 K.
By year’s end, performances like this would become routine. But on this day, in Boston, Snell took the ball and delivered the Rays their first win against Boston since Opening Day. It was a statement. It was a performance that revealed early on that this was going to be a special year for him and this team.
Snellzilla had arrived.
Opening Day 2018. The Rays were supposed to be the laughing stock of baseball. The media absolutely destroyed them and, while I could understand why, it never sat well with me. My fiancee Laura and I made the trip down to Florida for other reasons but decided to continue our Opening Day streak to get away from some things.
As for the game, Chris Sale happened and the Rays were shut down for a good part of Opening Day. Once the eighth inning came around though the wheels began to turn. Hometown kid Denard Span stepped up the plate with the bases juiced and the Rays down two. My heart was pounding, hands were shaking.
Span shot a flyball to right and Mookie Betts was shaded a bit to his left, so the ball dropped and rolled to the wall. Span cleared the bases and the Rays took a 5-4 lead. I vividly remember jumping up and down and acting like I was the third base coach with my swinging arm yelling at the guys “GO, GO, GO”. It felt like we just took the lead in Game 7 of the World Series. I looked at Laura and she was so unbelievably ecstatic, and I just knew that’s what truly made her a Rays fan for good. It gets me emotional thinking about it.
Despite the awful April the Rays went through, this team proved many wrong. Here we are about 80-something wins later with a shot at 90 and a bright future ahead. The Rays will be hosting a playoff game at the Trop fairly soon. And probably sooner than many think.
I agree 100 percent with Darby. Picking a specific moment from the 2018 season ended up being a near-impossibility. The season started so depressing, but reached such great heights by season’s end, it made every moment sparkle even more.
For me, though, one moment stood out above them all. In a season when the Rays simply laughed that the fact that the DRB slack chat once had an official ticker counting off the days since the last walkoff home run, Willy Adames’ blast was the one that stood out the most to me personally.
Willy Adames hits first career walk-off home run for the Rays pic.twitter.com/nylzrmKMC6— Baseball Bros (@BaseballBros) August 8, 2018
That’s because I have a confession to make. I had a take so hot, so scorchingly sweltering that I didn’t even dare to vocalize it, not even in safe spaces. Up until August 7 at around 9:59 p.m. I was pretty sure Willy Adames was going to be the Rays prospect who ended up a bust.
It wasn’t so much that Adames was slashing .209/.262/.318 leading into that evening (although that helped my confirmation bias swell to Bartolo Colon stomach sizes), it was more that he seemed, in my head, like the perfect candidate to just not quite see his skills translate at the major league level. I was convinced he wouldn’t have enough power to play in the modern era. That his defense would be solid, but nothing amazing for a short stop. I was worried that he might end up being one of those classic Quad-A guys who are fine if they are your number 30 prospect but absolutely killer if they are your headliner (why yes, I am talking to you, Minnesota Twins fans).
And then I watched that swing. And then I watched Adames proceed to slash .321/.410/.486 (148 wRC+) over the next 41 games. I saw him pace for a 20/20 season with a plus walk rate, excellent defense, and the type of young leadership that has made the past few months such a fun ride.
I saw the Rays future, and it looked like Willy Adames.