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Tight-knit Rays' 2013 season an up-and-down affair

TB's defense improves; pitching accounts for biggest surprises, disappointments

ST. PETERSBURG -- Streaky, but successful. That would be the 2013 Rays.

"Speaking to the streakiness, it would have been easy for our guys to fold up at numerous times of the season," said Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. "The fight that they demonstrated, the close-knit group, it was really a special group of guys."

When the Rays' season finally concluded after a 3-1 loss to the Red Sox in the American League Division Series, the team could take solace in how it played during a campaign that saw many highs and lows. In the end, the club advanced to the postseason for the fourth time in its 16-year history -- all in the last six years.

Tampa Bay reached the AL Division Series after victories in a trio of must-win road games in a span of four days: against the Blue Jays in Toronto on the final day of the regular season; against the Rangers in Arlington in the tiebreaker to determine who would grab the second AL Wild Card spot; and finally, against the Indians in Cleveland in the one-game playoff that sent the Rays to Boston.

In addition, the Rays won 92 games, giving them six consecutive winning seasons and their fifth season with 90-plus wins in that six-year stretch.

"Again, with 90-plus [wins], it's been a pretty good year, regardless of what anyone else might want to think. You're always going to talk about the different levels of success. And what is ultimate success? Probably winning the World Series," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

"Retrospectively, we didn't get where we wanted to get, but cannot be more proud or pleased with our group."

The Rays left Port Charlotte in April with the look of a team ready to scrap for runs, play stellar defense and dominate with their pitching. Some of that forecast came to fruition, while other parts only hinted at what might be.

Tampa Bay was a far superior defensive club compared to the 2012 model, making 55 fewer errors to finish with the second-best fielding mark in the Major Leagues, showing the largest improvement in the field since the 1964 Washington Senators. That improvement could be attributed largely to a revamped infield along with a healthy Evan Longoria. The Gold Glove Award-winning third baseman returned from an injury-marred 2012 season to play in 160 regular season games.

James Loney took over at first base and was every bit as strong defensively as the long line of slick-fielding Rays first basemen that came before him, including Travis Lee, Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman. In addition to Loney, Yunel Escobar joined team, giving the Rays their best shortstop since Jason Bartlett.

While the team effectively scrapped for runs using an attack that Maddon referred to as "swarming" -- and struck out far less than in recent years -- the group also produced a surprising amount of power. Having Longoria return to the everyday lineup helped a great deal, and he was joined by Wil Myers, Matt Joyce, Loney, Kelly Johnson and Ben Zobrist in helping the Rays in the slugging department.

Offensively, the Rays were more potent in the second half due to the arrival of Myers, who gave the team another power bat and a presence that helped protect Longoria in the batting order.

Pitching was the team's biggest surprise and disappointment, headlined by David Price and Fernando Rodney.

Price got off to a slow start and eventually went on the disabled list with a strained left triceps. After being gone for a prolonged period, Price, who is normally a 200-inning workhorse, returned for the final three months of the season, and over that stretch, he led the Major Leagues in innings pitched (131 2/3) and fewest pitches per inning (13.8), ranked fourth among AL pitchers in ERA (2.53) and tied for fourth with nine wins. He capped his regular season by pitching the Rays into the playoffs with a complete-game 5-2 win over the Rangers in the Game 163 tiebreaker.

Rodney compiled an historic season as the Rays' closer in 2012, but got out of the gates slowly in '13, blowing save opportunities that would never have been in question in 2012. Despite the slow start, he finished with 37 saves.

Matt Moore got off to a fast start, survived a mild slump, and got back on track to post the best first half, numbers-wise, of any of the team's starters. He missed August due to left elbow soreness and still managed to finish at 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA in 27 starts.

Like Price and Moore, Alex Cobb also missed a significant period of time due to injury, after he was struck on the side of the head by a line drive on June 15. He made a successful return and was the Rays' toughest pitcher down the stretch.

Because of the injuries, the Rays used 10 starters in 2013, their most since 2006. Nevertheless, they managed to have six pitchers with 20 or more starts. In the last 50 years, the only other AL team to make that claim was the 2001 Devil Rays.

Another positive aspect of 2013 was the squad's camaraderie.

"I thought overall, we were the tightest knit group from top to bottom that we've had," Longoria said. "I thought we had great team chemistry. It might not have been the greatest group of players we've had here as far as talent goes, but I thought the enthusiasm and the way that we went about our business carried us to where we got."

After posting a 55-41 mark in the first half, the Rays survived a 4-13 stretch between Aug. 25 and Sept. 11 to finish at 37-30 in the second half. Included in that final stretch was a memorable 5-4 victory in 18 innings over the Orioles on Sept. 20. The Rays followed with a win the next day, and they eventually finished off a four-game sweep of the Orioles when Loney mashed a pinch-hit, walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth for a 5-4 win.

That sweep seemingly crystallized the team prior to the final stretch, which resulted in a tie with the Rangers to end the regular season, forcing the aforementioned tiebreaker.

"When we were able to pull that out after 18 innings, it was like, 'Boy,'" Zobrist said. "And to get a win on Saturday after [the 18-inning game], it was like, wow, this is actually working out, coming a little bit easier. It just feels like a lot of the year, we'd get those moments and the next day let down."

Maddon noted that the team "waited all year for the signature moment."

"We waited for the signature game, and it has to be that 18-inning game," Maddon said. "We were kind of streaky. We had that component. The pitching was a part of that, but the schedule was kind of a bad schedule there, where there were two West Coast trips there toward the end that kind of beat us up a little bit. ...

"All of those things kind of led to this schizophrenic, up-and-down kind of year. Overall, I think the 18-inning game kind of indicated, or showed, what everybody was made of. Just look at the tenacity of our group at crunch time. Look at how our group responded at some really difficult moments."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for

Tampa Bay Rays, Alex Cobb, James Loney, Evan Longoria, Matt Moore, Wil Myers, David Price