Ten reasons why Rays are returning to postseason
Ability to overcome rotation injuries, healthy Longoria part of this year's success
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays enjoyed their sixth-consecutive winning season en route to their fourth postseason appearance in six years. While the foundation of each of those teams that reached the playoffs has been pitching and defense, each of the teams had a unique path.
The 2013 collection was no different.
Life without James Shields, J.P. Howell, B.J. Upton and Wade Davis took some getting used to, and the bullpen's sporadic collapses along with the offense's lack of timely hitting for extended periods made the journey more difficult, but in the end, enough came together for the Rays to reach October baseball.
Here is a look at 10 things, in no particular order, that went right in order for the Rays to put the regular season in the rearview mirror and join the postseason:
Ability to overcome injuries to the starting rotation
David Price, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb missed more than a month of the season due to injury. The ailments to Price and Moore were both arm related while Cobb's came in the aftermath of getting hit in the head with by a line drive from the Royals' Eric Hosmer. While the Rays were fortunate not to have the injuries overlap too much, they did a nice job of filling the holes when vacated, relying heavily on young hurlers Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Colome.
Improved infield defense
Sloppy infield defense likely cost the Rays a chance to reach the postseason last year, so management went into the offseason hoping to shore up those weaknesses. Amazingly, the Rays were able to find and procure what they were looking for with the additions of shortstop Yunel Escobar and first baseman James Loney. Ben Zobrist finished the 2012 season at shortstop and did a blue-collar job, but Escobar added another dimension to the position. His arrival also allowed Zobrist to become the team's second baseman on most nights. Meanwhile, Loney brought excellence to first base, which Tampa Bay fans had grown accustomed to following a progression of slick fielders at the position that included Travis Lee, Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman.
Healthy Evan Longoria
Longoria played in only 74 games last season due to a partially torn left hamstring. The Rays were 47-27 in those games and went 43-45 when he did not play. Longoria had his hamstring surgically repaired in the offseason, and the results were outstanding given the fact he played in 160 games in 2013. Longoria is unquestionably the club's best offensive player. He is a tough out with power. On top of that, Longoria is a team leader, plays Gold Glove defense and he's a winner. Manager Joe Maddon's job became significantly easier by being able to pencil in Longoria's name to the lineup anytime he wanted to this season.
The arrival of Wil Myers
Myers was called up June 18, and the complexion of the offense changed immediately. The rookie slugger added power to the lineup and some much-needed protection for Longoria. Given the amount of hype surrounding the heralded youngster, promoting him could have backfired had he not performed and had he not fit in inside the clubhouse. Myers performed well enough to be a top candidate for the American League Rookie of the Year Award and proved to be a hit inside the clubhouse as well.
Archer comes of age
Everybody always knew Archer had above-average stuff, the question was whether he would find the command that would make him special. The 25-year-old arrived June 1 looking like he would continue to wear his old tag. Then the command clicked in and Archer took off. The right-hander won seven consecutive starts from June 23 to July 27. Included in some of the gems he pitched were shutouts at New York against the Yankees and at Tropicana Field against the Astros.
Moore arrived to the Major Leagues with a splash at the end of the 2011 season and then followed with a solid but less than super '12 season that left Rays fans wondering if he could again find whatever it was that generated his initial buzz. The left-hander answered that question at the beginning of the season by jumping out to an 8-0 start that kept Tampa Bay afloat during the early part of the season.
The Rays' ace missed the second half of May and all of June with a left triceps strain. Upon his return on July 2, Price brought uncanny command that saw him walk just one batter in his first seven starts back. Not only did that serve the club well when he started, it seemed to elevate the performances of his fellow starters. During that period, the team went on a streak that saw it win 22 of 26 games.
Dodging the West Coast knockout punch
When the 2013 schedule was released, a particularly large stumbling block stood out like pizza sauce on a white shirt: A 10-game road trip to Oakland, Anaheim and Seattle from Aug. 30 through Sept. 8. Regardless of whether the Rays got whacked during that stretch, a bigger concern was how the team would react if it did get whacked. Well, as predicted, Tampa Bay did have a horrid trip that saw it take a 4-1 win in Seattle on the final day of the trip to finish at 3-7. Fortunately, the club did not sulk after taking its lumps, which allowed it to regroup and win enough times in its remaining 20 games to carve a path into the postseason.
The Rays seemed to find an extra gear down the home stretch when they went 14-5 in their last 19 games, including their victory over the Rangers in Monday's tiebreaker game along with an impressive seven-game winning streak heading into their final weekend series against the Blue Jays in Toronto. When Tampa Bay began its hot streak, the other AL Wild Card candidates seemed to be stuck in a malaise like the Rays. Nobody seemed to want to take the prize. But the Rays finally got on their much-needed run and that turned out to be a good thing. Had the Rays not gotten really hot, they would not have made the postseason.
Maddon comes through again
Maddon had another solid season at the helm of the Rays, seemingly pushing all the right buttons in helping the team facilitate its 92-win season. The manager has created a positive clubhouse and players want to play for the Rays. In particular, the Maddon effect seemed to pay with rich dividends in the cases of Loney and Escobar, who both responded well to the different clubhouse they found with Tampa Bay.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.