Box score of the day: New era for Rays in '08

April 13th, 2020

The 2008 season was bound to be a sea change for the Tampa Bay baseball franchise -- that’s something we knew heading in. Following the 2007 season, the team had announced that it would be dropping the "Devil" from the original "Devil Rays" team name, becoming the Rays -- making reference to a burst of sunshine instead. With the new team name came new uniforms and a new team identity.

But the other new element that doesn’t come along with every name change? Winning ways. Through 2007, the Devil Rays had existed for 10 seasons. They’d never won more than 70 games, therefore they’d never finished even at .500. Their best divisional finish? Fourth place, in 2004 -- when they went 70-91.

Things changed in a big way for the Rays in 2008. They didn’t just post their first above-.500 season, they went way past the 81-win mark, winning 97 games, which is still a franchise record. They won the American League East for the first time and made it all the way to the World Series, in the team’s first-ever postseason appearance.

The Rays’ improvement had implications for the Orioles, their opponents in this edition of box score of the day, too. The Orioles hadn’t finished above .500 since 1997, but had managed to avoid last place in part due to the presence of the Rays. They’d go on to finish fifth of five teams in the AL East in 2008, then did the same from 2009-11, too, before returning to the postseason in 2012 as the Wild Card.

The Rays’ turnaround was fueled by strong seasons across the lineup card and throughout the pitching staff. One such season belonged to rookie Evan Longoria, whom the Rays had drafted third overall in the 2006 Draft. He made his debut as a 22-year-old on April 12, and would go on to win Rookie of the Year honors in the AL.

Let’s take a look at today’s box score of the day, one that foreshadowed the greatness to come for the 2008 Rays:

Player of the game: B.J. Upton, CF, Rays
At the time, Upton went by B.J., a name he reverted to again last year after four years going by Melvin Upton Jr. instead. Though the Rays won this one relatively easily, he’s certainly worth singling out as the player of the game. His three-run homer in the bottom of the fifth staked the Rays to a 6-0 lead they wouldn’t relinquish, and knocked Orioles starter Brian Burress out of the game.

Though he didn’t have one in this game, Upton would go on to steal a career-high 44 bases in 2008, the most in a season by any player in Rays history not named Carl Crawford (who had seven seasons with more than that, in total). Upton had 3.3 WAR in 2008, the second-best season of his career by that metric, behind only 2007, when he had 4.4. Those aren’t gaudy numbers, but expectations were high for the player the Rays had taken second overall in the 2002 MLB Draft. Upton finished his career with 300 stolen bases on the dot, 232 of those in a Rays jersey.

Remember him? Brian Roberts, 2B, Orioles
In 2008, Roberts was on the heels of an '07 All-Star selection, the second of his career. In that prior season, he’d knocked 42 doubles and stolen a career-high 50 bases, tied for the AL lead along with Crawford. As a 30-year-old in 2008, he’d go on to hit 51 doubles, his second career season with at least 50 doubles, after he had 50 in 2004. He’d have a Major League-leading 56 doubles in 2009 to seal his third career 50-double season, tied for second-most ever. The only player in Major League history with more 50-doubles seasons is Tris Speaker, who had five.

Unfortunately, Roberts’ career went downhill after that 2009 season. He played 283 more games spanning five seasons and managed just 49 doubles total. Those seasons were injury-marred, with his 91 games in his final season in 2014 with the Yankees being his highest total. In those final five seasons, Roberts dealt with abdominal, hip and knee injuries, as well as a concussion.

He wore THAT uniform? Kevin Millar, 1B, Orioles
Most remember Millar for his role on the 2003 and 2004 Red Sox teams that made the playoffs, including the ‘04 club which won the franchise’s first World Series since 1918. He contributed to those teams from both an offensive standpoint and with his clubhouse presence, which was well-documented. But did you also recall that he played three seasons in an Orioles uniform, from 2006-08?

He signed with Baltimore as a free agent, a one-year deal for the 2006 season. He hit 52 regular-season homers during his time in an O’s uniform -- the exact number he had in his three years in Boston. And Millar wasn’t just on the Orioles. He actually tied a record for the club, reaching base safely in 52 consecutive games in 2007, tying the franchise mark on record, set by Jack Tobin in 1922, when the team was the St. Louis Browns.

Before he was big: Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays & Adam Jones, CF, Orioles
As noted above, Longoria was playing his second career game on April 13, 2008, and would go on to have an award-winning season. He hit 27 homers and slugged .531 for an upstart Rays team that won the AL East crown. In this game, he notched his second career hit -- a fifth-inning single. He’d go on to have a strong 10-year career with the Rays, making the All-Star team in each of his first three seasons and receiving MVP votes in six separate years, in addition to winning three Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger. And of course, he hit that walk-off homer in Game 162 in 2011, too.

However, he wasn’t the only player in this game who we didn’t know much about yet -- but were about to. Jones, also a 22-year-old at the time, went 0-for-4 in this game, but he was about to really establish himself. After being drafted 37th overall by the Mariners in 2003, he debuted in Seattle in '06 and played in a combined 73 games from 2006-07. In February 2008, the Mariners traded Jones to Baltimore in a deal for Erik Bedard. Jones’ first All-Star and Gold Glove season would come a year later, in 2009, but '08 was when Adam Jones became the player that we all remember so strongly.

These two young players were part of the beginning of a long-running AL East rivalry -- when the Orioles returned to prominence from 2012-16, the Rays were there, too -- no longer simply the perennial fifth-place team. And both Longoria and Jones would go on to carry these teams during their peak years, defining what it means to be a franchise player.

Last call: Troy Percival, RP, Rays
You probably remember Percival from his time with the Angels, from 1995-2004. He won a World Series with the club in 2002 -- and served up a pretty memorable homer to Barry Bonds in that Series, too. The 2008 season would end up being the second-to-last of his career, with both of those final years coming in a Rays uniform.

Percival’s career path after leaving the Angels following the 2004 season was quite the winding one. He signed with the Tigers for the 2005 season, but got off to a bad start and suffered a right forearm injury in July. When he got to Spring Training for the team in 2006, he again dealt with pain, and wasn’t able to pitch. He spent the season on the Tigers’ injured list, but here’s where it gets interesting: since he couldn’t pitch, he worked as an advance scout for the club instead. His contract with the Tigers ended at the end of the ‘06 campaign.

In January of 2007, he signed on with the Angels to be a Minor League coach, but ended up requesting out of that contract to pursue an opportunity to extend his playing career. He signed with the Cardinals in June and pitched 34 games for the club at the big league level after having not been in the Majors since 2005. He signed a two-year deal with the Rays following that season, and pitched for them until his 2009 season ended due to injury, which ultimately ended his career, too, at age 39.