ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - Thanks to an infusion of young talent, the Tampa Bay Rays overcame a slow start to win 90 games and spawn lofty expectations for next season.
What was supposed to a rebuilding year for the Rays, who trimmed payroll in the winter and purged the roster again, might have been even more special if not for the success of AL East rivals Boston and New York.
The Red Sox repeated as division champion with 108 victories and the Yankees won 100 to earn AL’s top wild-card berth.
The Rays finished 18 games behind Boston and 10 behind New York, but weren’t eliminated from post-season contention until Sept. 24.
“I hope we don’t have two 100-win teams in our division next year,” manager Kevin Cash said. “But if we do, we’re one of them.”
First-time All-Star Blake Snell led the major leagues with 21 wins and an AL-leading 1.89 ERA, rookie Joey Wendle played solid defense while hitting .300 in 139 games, and C.J. Cron had 30 homers and 74 RBIs after being acquired during a trade in spring training.
“As an organization there was some amount of satisfaction that came with the work that we’ve been doing the last several years to prepare a young group coming through our minor leagues … and to see that finally hit our major league team,” general manager Erik Neander said.
“When we look back at this year, hopefully it will be seen as the year that started off a run of many competitive, playoff achieving seasons,” Neander added, “and hopefully, a championship in there at some point.”
The Rays lost 12 of 15 to begin the season, digging themselves into a hole few people felt they were capable of escaping after a winter that saw them trade Evan Longoria, Steven Souza Jr., Corey Dickerson and Jake Odorizzi and lose starting pitcher Alex Cobb to free agency.
They trimmed salary again in July, unloading pitchers Chris Archer, Nathan Eovaldi and Alex Colome, as well as All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos and Denard Span to make way for the youth movement that keyed a second-half surge.
The Rays went 41-25 after the All-Star break, including 19-9 in September. They were 9-1-2 over their last 12 series.
“Coming out of spring training we didn’t know what kind of club we were going to have on the field as far as wins and losses,” Cash said, “but we knew we had a good group of guys, a good core group of guys and a lot to look forward to … with some of younger players getting opportunities.”
One of the keys to overcoming the slow start was creative use of the bullpen that included the introduction of “openers” - relievers who started games and generally faced from three to nine batters.
A “bullpen day” starter, by comparison, usually pitched deeper into games though normally no more than twice through an opposing team’s lineup.
Prior to the debut of the “opener” on May 19, the Rays ranked 22nd in the majors in ERA. From that day forward, they were third-best behind the Dodgers and Astros.
“I think any time you’re trying something a little bit different, you don’t know how it’s going to be perceived and how it will work out,” senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom said. “You know you’re going to learn along the way, and we did learn. Overall, we were very pleased with how it went.”
Some things to know about the Rays:
Snell had 27 starts in which he allowed two or fewer runs, most by an AL pitcher since Wilbur Wood had 27 for the White Sox in 1972. The last two AL pitchers to win at least 21 games and a sub-2.00 ERA were Roger Clemens for the Red Sox in 1990 and Ron Guidry for the Yankees in 1978.
The Rays, who made the playoffs four times in six seasons from 2008-2013, have won at least 90 games six times over the last 11 seasons. The Red Sox (seven) and Dodgers (seven) and Yankees (six) are the only teams with as many or more during that stretch.
Cash called finishing with a winning record an “accomplishment,” but noted the standard for the organization is much higher.
“We’re not going to settle for just the feel good story … but you’ve got to be proud of what’s taken place to this point, and we are,” the manager said.
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