Unpredictable, unforgettable best describe Rays in 2013

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There is always a strange feeling that comes with cleaning out a season. Twenty-four hours before lockers emptied and cardboard boxes were taped shut in the Tampa Bay Rays’ clubhouse, Tropicana Field hummed with anticipation for Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox. Hope was in ample supply.

In a day, however, closure and offseason unknowns had replaced postseason optimism. The Red Sox, with three runs Tuesday night, had clinched a berth in the AL Championship Series against either the Detroit Tigers or Oakland Athletics. The Rays, meanwhile, were left Wednesday to look inward at a campaign that included a bit of everything: Pythons and penguins; streaks and slumps; a high-profile promotion in Wil Myers and a horrific, frightening sight in Alex Cobb sustaining a mild concussion after a liner struck his right ear.

Only one clubhouse wipes away the sweet sting of a champagne shower after the World Series. The rest, as the Rays did Wednesday afternoon, move into the winter with hugs and well-wishes with an eye toward spring training after falling short of the sport’s ultimate goal. As Cobb put it, “It’s not the fairy-tale ending. But there are some definite bright spots.”

“It would have been easy for our guys to fold up at numerous different points of the season,” said Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ executive vice president of baseball operations.

“It was really a special group of guys. … We made life more difficult on ourselves than we probably should have or could have. But it was almost like they thrived on that. It was a really special group of tight-knit guys that enjoyed playing together.”

The end for this group came in the wee hours Wednesday morning because, simply, the Red Sox were better. Boston beat two of Tampa Bay’s most trusted arms to open the series at Fenway Park, Matt Moore and David Price. The Red Sox proved too strong to allow the Rays to overcome the steep deficit.

In the series, Boston outscored Tampa Bay 26-12 and had 38 hits to the Rays’ 29. The dramatics of Game 3, highlighted by Jose Lobaton’s first career postseason game-ending homer that splashed into the Rays Touch Tank beyond center field, offered some sense that another comeback for this eclectic, never-say-die collection of talent could be possible.

But a return trip to Fenway Park, and perhaps another series to follow, was never to be. The abrupt end came earlier than some thought possible.

“We had a good year,” Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. “We fell short of expectations, definitely. I thought going into the year we had a good chance of making the playoffs and going all the way. One of two goals was accomplished.”

The fact that the Rays even did that much, however, is notable. First, they went a major league-best 21-5 in July, only to go 11-15 in August. Then they recovered from a 3-7 West Coast swing in early September to win nine of 11 games to close the month and finish tied with the hot Texas Rangers for the AL’s second wild-card spot. Then they beat the Rangers in a tiebreaker game, and later the Indians in the AL wild-card contest, to reach the ALDS for the fourth time in six years. 

The playoff berth stands out, but this Rays season will be remembered for many other things: the first without James Shields, the rises of Moore and Cobb and Chris Archer, Myers’ burst, James Loney’s emergence, Yunel Escobar’s flair, Price playing with an uncertain future, Longoria offering more proof that he’s a cornerstone of this franchise for years to come.

That mix resulted in the Rays winning at least 90 games for the fourth straight season, perhaps the most crucial an 18-inning thriller over the Baltimore Orioles on Sept. 20 at Tropicana Field, one that ended in six hours and 54 minutes. They avoided consecutive non-playoff campaigns for the first time since Maddon became the franchise’s fourth manager before the 2006 season. Much of the summer, they benefitted from young, promising pitching and timely offense to compete with the Red Sox near the top of the AL East.

Certainly, the Rays had flaws, most notably a staff that appeared vulnerable against Boston. Production, when it was needed most, also waned at the end.

Still, the Rays were creative enough to reach this far, even if some had envisioned October lasting longer.  

“I thought we had the talent and ability to go all the way,” Rays infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist said. “In a sense, it’s a disappointment for me personally to think we didn’t do that. But at the same time, I have to remember the camaraderie and the fun that we had.”

That feeling was on display Wednesday, when a transition was made. Before the final goodbyes, Latin rap lifted from the Rays’ clubhouse. Zobrist, Longoria and others offered their takeaways on the year. Lockers looked lifeless, empty. Postseason optimism had given way to a time of change and renewal.  

No matter what the calendar said, October here was over. The Rays prepared to rest.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.