How they got there: Rays ready to finish job

October 4th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- For all the Rays have accomplished since their worst-to-first turnaround in 2008, they had never made three consecutive trips to the postseason. Until now.

The Rays snapped a five-year playoff drought in 2019, won the American League last year and have now officially secured a spot in this year’s postseason field. After losing in the ALDS in ’19 and falling short against the Dodgers in last year’s World Series, they expect to take another step forward in their third consecutive run through October.

“I think everybody here will hold themselves accountable and say, 'We expect to be there, and when we get there, we expect to have success,’” reliever Collin McHugh said recently. “We’ve got a group here who might be young, but we're not inexperienced.”

Indeed, most of these Rays have been there and done that. They handled last year’s shortened regular season and expanded postseason, marching all the way to Game 6 of the World Series. This time, the team tested by a full, 162-game season wants to finish the job.

This is how the Rays returned to the postseason.

How they were built:

Here’s a look at how the Rays assembled their roster. They’ve used 61 players, a franchise record, and this list includes anyone who’s played a significant role this season -- not just those likely to crack the postseason roster.

Amateur Draft: Brandon Lowe, Kevin Kiermaier, Taylor Walls, Shane McClanahan, Josh Fleming, Brent Honeywell Jr., Josh Lowe

International signings: Wander Franco, Vidal Bruján

Major League free agents: Michael Wacha, Collin McHugh, Chris Archer, David Robertson

Minor League free agents: Mike Brosseau (non-drafted free agent), Louis Head, Dietrich Enns, Adam Conley, Ryan Sherriff

Trades: Mike Zunino (initially acquired via trade, re-signed as a free agent), Andrew Kittredge (initially acquired via trade, re-signed on a Minor League deal), Yandy Díaz, Joey Wendle, Austin Meadows, Manuel Margot, Nelson Cruz, Randy Arozarena, Brett Phillips, Ji-Man Choi, Francisco Mejía, Jordan Luplow, Ryan Yarbrough, Tyler Glasnow, Luis Patiño, Jeffrey Springs, Pete Fairbanks, Drew Rasmussen, J.P. Feyereisen, Matt Wisler, Chris Mazza, JT Chargois, Nick Anderson, Shane Baz

Rule 5 Draft: Ryan Thompson (Triple-A phase)

(Italicized players are on the 60-day injured list or unlikely to pitch again this season due to injury.)

Key transaction: Acquired RHP Drew Rasmussen and RHP J.P. Feyereisen for SS Willy Adames

There’s no doubt that veteran DH Nelson Cruz was the single biggest addition the Rays have made this season, as much for his presence and leadership as his powerful bat. But consider everything that this May 21 trade with the Brewers set in motion:

Feyereisen immediately stepped into an injury-plagued bullpen to record big outs during an important stretch of wins. Rasmussen eventually made his way into the bullpen before moving into the rotation, and he now looks like one of their most reliable starting options come October. And trading the beloved Adames ultimately cleared the way for Wander Franco, then the consensus top prospect in baseball. The 20-year-old scuffled for a few weeks, then lived up to every bit of the hype, changing the dynamic of the Rays’ high-scoring lineup in the second half despite his youth and inexperience.

“Things have gone pretty well since the trade, and we’re really happy with where we’re at right now,” Rasmussen said. “It’s always really nice when it’s a win-win for both sides.”

Managerial decision: Embracing depth and flexibility

The Rays do a lot of things well. They have one of the Majors’ highest-scoring lineups, a group capable of hitting for power and getting on base. At one point, their rotation -- led by Glasnow, flanked by Rich Hill and Shane McClanahan – looked like a strength; it could be again, albeit now with McClanahan and Rasmussen flanked by Luis Patiño and Shane Baz. Their bullpen is as good as any. They play elite defense.

But the depth and flexibility of Tampa Bay’s roster make it all possible. Manager Kevin Cash can call upon anyone in any situation, whether it’s setting up advantageous matchups late in games or mixing and matching with such a varied cast of relievers that they’ve practically run out three different bullpens this season. The Rays’ front office has put together a deep and talented roster, but Cash consistently displays remarkable dexterity in deploying that depth.

Defining season stretch: May 13-24

Truth be told, the Rays have had a lot of season-defining stretches. The way they entered the All-Star break, bouncing back from a five-game losing streak by winning six of seven. The way they came out of the break, going 11-5 and moving into first place during a huge series against the Red Sox that concluded with a Sunday Night Baseball game at Tropicana Field. The way they cruised into September, winning 13 of 16 to build up a season-high 9 1/2-game lead in the division.

But the Rays’ 11-game winning streak from May 13-24, one victory shy of the longest streak in franchise history, showed who they really were after they spent the first six weeks of the season hovering around .500. The momentum they built then carried them beyond just that winning streak, as they strung together a longer stretch during which they went 24-5 from May 13 until June 14, the night Glasnow made his final start of the season.

Breakout player: Andrew Kittredge

There are a bunch of correct answers here. Franco broke into the Majors and, after a few rough weeks, became a historically tough out for his age. It was at times easy to forget that this is McClanahan’s first full Major League season. Rasmussen went from the Minors to the bullpen to the rotation and thrived at every step. McHugh’s been good before, but he was otherworldly and indescribably important to their bullpen for extended stretches this year. Brandon Lowe put together a full, career-best season. Mike Zunino is arguably their MVP due to his consistent power at the plate and invaluable defense behind it.

But the nod here goes to Kittredge, who held together a bullpen battered by injuries most of the season and became the highest-leverage reliever in the group. It was fair to expect he’d be good, but coming into camp as a non-roster invitee after a serious arm injury last season, who could have predicted he’d be this good and this important? Kittredge pitched in every inning from the first to the 11th and undoubtedly earned his first career All-Star nod with his consistent work.

Calling card: Late-inning comebacks

Having firmly established their reputation as a run-prevention machine, this year’s edition of the Rays also became the Majors’ highest-scoring lineup. That was especially true with Cruz and Franco, as they’ve averaged 6.4 runs per game with both in the lineup. And they were never more productive than in the late innings, whether they were ahead and sometimes when they were seemingly too far behind to come back.

The Rays entered Wednesday with 45 come-from-behind wins, second-most in the Majors behind the Red Sox (46). They’ve scored a club-record and MLB-leading 300 runs in the seventh inning or later. They have 17 wins when trailing by three runs or more, most in the Majors, including a league-leading nine when trailing by three or more runs in the sixth inning or later. They’ve come back to win seven times when they were down heading into the ninth. In short: Leads are rarely safe against the Rays, however late in the game it may be.

Memorable moment: The Labor Day Comeback

After two innings on Sept. 6, the Rays found themselves in a six-run hole against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. They were tired, with a quick turnaround between landing in Boston and playing their matinee series opener. They were facing Red Sox ace Chris Sale. They were facing a deficit that no Tampa Bay team had ever overcome when facing Boston. And yet …

The Rays wound up winning, 11-10, in 10 innings. Cruz cleared the bases on a “Little League grand slam” in the fourth inning and, after some bullpen back-and-forth, cleared the Green Monster to make it a one-run game in the eighth. In the ninth, Austin Meadows scored the tying run on an inside-the-park homer. Cruz and Lowe gave the Rays a two-run lead in extras, then McHugh successfully executed a high-wire act to seal the victory.

“Biggest win of the year,” Meadows said that evening in Boston. And of many, the most memorable one.