Rays' rollercoaster of a season keeps chugging along

BY foxsports • September 29, 2013

Their season closed with more drama than expected -- a two-game losing skid in Toronto followed a seven-game winning streak that seemed to place them in a favorable position -- but the end result means at least one more game for one of the savviest franchises in professional sports, more baseball for a place that went without it for the first 10 seasons of its existence.

The Tampa Bay Rays will play beyond Game 162, with a matchup on the road Monday night against the Texas Rangers to decide the American League’s second wild-card spot, a development many throughout baseball thought possible back when pitchers and catchers reported in Port Charlotte, Fla., before Wil Myers' rise, before Matt Moore's stellar year, before David Price's disabled-list stint and recovery, before the emergence of James Loney and Yunel Escobar and Alex Torres, before Alex Cobb missed two months with a mild concussion and returned to become one of the most formidable right-handers in the game.

There are so many moments that capture these 2013 Rays. Myers' debut June 18 at Fenway Park. Fernando Rodney's brushback of Miguel Cabrera in a 10-inning victory over the Detroit Tigers on June 29. Ben Zobrist's plunking by Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello the next day in a Rays victory, an act that made manager Joe Maddon reference Mario Puzo, author of "The Godfather."

Moore being named an All-Star for the first time and Ben Zobrist the second. Sam Fuld's throw from left field that retired the Red Sox's Daniel Nava at home plate in a victory at Fenway Park on July 29.

Cobb's return Aug. 15 after a 102.4-mph liner from the Kansas City Royals' Eric Hosmer hit him on the right ear. The 12-inning victory over the Texas Rangers on Sept. 18 at Tropicana Field. The 18-inning victory over the Baltimore Orioles two days later in the same building.

The contributions were diverse, and like any team effort, credit goes to many. The Rays posted four consecutive 90-win seasons for the first time in franchise history, a testament to the patience, creativity and flexibility required to achieve sustained success in a grueling campaign.

The Rays finished second in the American League East at the same time the Orioles faded, the New York Yankees grew old and the Toronto Blue Jays collapsed under expectations formed after becoming the beneficiary of the Miami Marlins' blockbuster trade.

The Rays weren't perfect, at times showing inconsistency and wear, especially late in the season. There were stretches when the front of their rotation was unreliable -- most visibly, Jeremy Hellickson.

There were times when the bullpen was spotty and Myers and Evan Longoria failed to spark the offense. But when they were on, they displayed how dangerous their combination of power and finesse can be.

That combination was presented best in July, when they went a major league-best 21-5. The month included sweeps of the awful Chicago White Sox (three games) and Minnesota Twins (four), and an impressive 8-2 road trip against the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Yankees to begin the season's second half.

As good as they looked then, however, August proved to be a humbling period. They went 11-15 for the month, their victory total only topping the Houston Astros' eight for the fewest in the American League. The swoon included a six-game losing skid from Aug. 6-13 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Dodgers and Seattle Mariners. They never won more than three consecutive games, achieved twice, once Aug. 14-16 against the Mariners and Blue Jays and the other Aug. 18-20 against the Blue Jays and Orioles.

Then there was the West Coast stumble, where they played their season's worst baseball, a slog that gave hope to the Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Orioles, Yankees, and Kansas City Royals for one of the AL's two wild-card spots.

They lost three against the Oakland Athletics, two of four against the Los Angeles Angels and two of three against the Mariners before returning home to lose two straight against the Red Sox. They looked like a team fatigued, a group tired.

But there was recovery by the end -- just enough to rise in a three-team scramble for two wild-card spots -- and anything seems possible from here. The Rays have benefitted from late-season contributions by right-hander Jake Odorizzi, designated hitter Delmon Young and outfielder David DeJesus.

Cobb looks as strong as anyone in the rotation, and if the bullpen stabilizes, Tampa Bay's pitching gives it a fighter's chance in a postseason series against the Red Sox, Athletics or anyone else.

All this has led to a notable moment: The Rays, formerly one of the majors' most dreadful franchises, will play after the regular season's final day for the fourth time in six years.

Consider that they won only 66 games as early as six seasons ago. The turnaround, and the consistency to maintain an elite level, is one of the most remarkable stories in all of baseball.

It's similar to what the Houston Texans have done in the NFL. What the Los Angeles Clippers have done in the NBA. What Kansas State has done in building a contender in major college football.

The progression has continued. In a year of the wild and strange -- from pythons to penguins, from DJs to magicians, from wee-hour marathons to the search for Maddon's "organic moment" -- it all has led to another chance to chase a World Series, an opportunity to dream.

Back in the spring, when everything was new, that's all anyone in the Rays' clubhouse sought. It's here, after a variety of twists and turns and developments along the way, after the wild ride that is a 162-game season.

Let the road continue.

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

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