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Strong pitching for Rays, but offense too often lacked

ST. PETERSBURG -- Tampa Bay looked like a world beater at the beginning of 2012 season, then morphed into an average team before finishing with a bang.

Unfortunately for the Rays, that final bang that saw the team win 12 of its last 14 games wasn't enough to put the club into the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. However, it did whet the appetite for more in 2013.

When Tampa Bay left Spring Training, the organization was certain it had one of the best, if not the best pitching staff in baseball.

Offense had always been the team's Achilles' heel. At best, the Rays would score just enough runs to complement the team's mantra, based on pitching and defense. But Tampa Bay felt like 2012 would be different after making several offseason transactions.

Carlos Pena and Luke Scott were brought in to help generate more power. And Jeff Keppinger was signed to add a veteran capable of making consistent contact -- a missing ingredient for the offense.

Question marks came in relation to the bullpen -- questions that were more than answered by closer Fernando Rodney, who anchored a shutdown bullpen.

The team got off to a terrific start, posting a 15-8 mark in the first month.

"I thought it was a great mix of players coming into Spring Training," manager Joe Maddon said. "And the way it started out, it appeared that way. You saw what we did the first month of the season. Luke was driving in runs like crazy. Carlos hits a grand slam against [CC] Sabathia, who he was zero for his life against [before]. Then Matt Joyce gets off to a great start, everything [was going well]."

On April 30, Evan Longoria went on the disabled list with a partially torn left hamstring, which left the Rays without their top offensive weapon at the beginning of May. He would remain on the disabled list until early August.

"My comment at the time was, for him to get hurt right now with the complementary players we had, I thought we could absorb it," Maddon said. "I really did."

Without Longoria, Tampa Bay's highly touted staff continued to soar, but the offense fell back to earth. The team went 14-14 in May, followed by a 12-15 June and a 13-13 July.

Once Longoria returned from the disabled list, as did others, the offense began to click in August. Combined with the pitching that never faltered, the Rays went 17-11 in August, and when the team got off to a 4-0 start in September, Tampa Bay was looking like the team many forecast to go to the World Series.

But the offensive woes would resurface, resulting in a dismal two-week September stretch that saw the Rays' hopes for reaching the postseason fade away. The team made a valiant effort at the end to make it close, but ultimately, it had simply dug too deep of a hole to recover.

"For whatever reason, [it was] a difficult year for some of our guys," Maddon said. "Why? I have no idea why they struggled as much as they did. But coming into the season, I thought it was a great mix."

Boasting a talented roster that has a new look, there is hope the Rays can make better memories in 2013. Here is one final look back at the highs and lows of '12, recapped by the top five storylines of the calendar year.

5. Five-year winning streak

By posting a 90-72 mark in 2012, the Rays minted their fifth consecutive winning season. Only the Yankees, who have 20 consecutive winning seasons, and the Cardinals (five) have current streaks as long.

Tampa Bay owns the Major Leagues' third-best record over the past five seasons and has averaged 92 wins.

The 2012 season also brought the Rays their third consecutive season with 90 or more wins, which they have accomplished in four of the past five seasons.

The AL East featured three teams with 90-plus wins for the second consecutive year. Under the current divisional format that began in 1994, it was only the fifth time a division had three 90-win teams.

4. Run differential

Even though the offense received constant criticism, it did score 697 runs. When balanced against the 577 runs the team allowed, the Rays finished with an impressive run differential of plus-120, which was the third best in baseball behind the Nationals (plus-137) and the Yankees (plus-136).

The last team to rank in the top three in the Major Leagues in run differential but miss the playoffs was the 2005 Indians, who finished at plus-147 en route to a 93-69 mark.

The Rays' 577 runs allowed were the fewest by an AL team since the 1990 A's surrendered 570.

3. A trade with an eye to the future

On Dec. 9, the Rays made a blockbuster deal with the Royals that considered the present and had an eye on the future.

Right-handers James Shields and Wade Davis, along with a player to be named, were traded to Kansas City for highly regarded outfielder Wil Myers, right-hander Jake Odorizzi, left-hander Mike Montgomery and third baseman Patrick Leonard.

"Personally, I think this is the most difficult trade we've made to date," said executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "Both guys were drafted and developed here. They've been key players in this organization's turnaround. And they're both really high-quality people. It's a painful loss for our club, but I'm confident in our resilience and the talent that we will be returning to the field next season."

Shields would have made $10.25 million in 2013 with the Rays, who held a club option for $12 million in '14. Meanwhile, Davis will make $2.8 million in 2013 and $4.8 million in '14; Tampa Bay held club options on the right-hander that could have kept him with the team through '17.

"We're constantly working to balance the present and the future, and always trying to thread the needle," Friedman said.

After B.J. Upton left via free agency in November, signing a five-year, $75.25 million deal with the Braves, the Rays were without a center fielder and with less firepower. Acquiring Myers appears to have the potential to fill that void in center field while injecting some much-needed life into the lineup.

Myers, 22, is considered a five-tool prospect. rated him as the No. 3 prospect in the Minor Leagues after his 2012 campaign, during which he hit a combined .314 with 37 home runs and 109 RBIs in stints at the Double-A and Triple-A levels.

2. Life without Longo

The three-time All-Star missed 85 games due to a partially torn left hamstring, which he incurred on April 30 against Seattle.

Without their best player, the Rays went 41-44; with him in the lineup, they went 47-27.

Tampa Bay scored nearly a run more per game during his time on the active roster. The team averaged 4.79 runs per game with him on the roster, but only 3.86 runs per game during his time on the disabled list.

Longoria still hit .289 with 17 home runs and 55 RBIs in only 74 games. Had he played a full season, Longoria's numbers projected him to hit 37 home runs and 120 RBIs.

Although Longoria has spent a combined 143 games on the DL in 2008, '11 and '12, he is one of 11 active players to average at least 25 home runs and 90 RBIs over his first five seasons in the Major Leagues.

1. Historic pitching

Rays pitchers led the Major Leagues with a 3.19 ERA, .228 opposition average and set an AL record with 1,383 strikeouts.

The Rays joined the 1999 Red Sox as the only two teams in the last 30 years to lead the AL in all three categories. The last time an AL team matched Tampa Bay's totals in ERA and opposition batting average was 1972, when the Orioles, Angels and A's all did it.

The 3.19 ERA was the lowest by an AL team since the 1990 A's (3.18) and the lowest by any team since the 2003 Dodgers (3.16).

Unfortunately, the Rays were just the eighth team in the last 34 seasons to lead the Major Leagues in ERA and not advance to the postseason.

Leading the way were AL Cy Young Award winner David Price, who became the first 20-game winner in franchise history, and Shields, who chipped in with 15 wins.

Closer Rodney posted a 2-2 record with a 0.60 ERA and 48 saves to lead the bullpen to an AL best 2.88 ERA and .208 opposing average.

Tampa Bay's incredible staff finished the season with a bang by posting a 2.60 ERA after the All-Star break. In the past 40 years, only one team has posted a lower ERA after the break in a full season: the 1976 Dodgers (2.26).