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Tight-knit Rays made most of opportunities in 2013

Year ended with ALDS defeat, but featured thrilling playoff push and solid chemistry

ST. PETERSBURG -- Aside from not going deep into the playoffs, the Rays enjoyed another successful season in 2013.

The team advanced to the postseason for the fourth time in its history -- all in the last six years. In addition, claiming 92 wins gave the Rays six consecutive winning seasons and their fifth season with 90-plus wins in the last six years. They fell short in October, dropping the American League Division Series to the eventual-champion Red Sox, three games to one.

"Winning 90-plus games is a pretty good year," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "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. ... Retrospectively, we didn't get where we wanted to get, but I couldn't have been more proud or pleased with our group."

The Rays left Port Charlotte, Fla., 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 yet come in the future.

With a talented roster and the same excellent leadership, there is hope that the Rays will continue the incredible roll they have enjoyed since the 2008 season. Here is one final look back at the highs and lows of 2013, recapped by the top five storylines of the calendar year:

5. Defense rises to the occasion

Tampa Bay was a far superior defensive club in 2013 compared to the '12 model, making 55 fewer errors to finish with the second-best fielding mark in the Major Leagues. The final tally showed the Rays having the largest improvement in the field since the 1964 Washington Senators. That improvement could be attributed largely to a revamped infield along with the contributions by Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist at third base and second base, respectively.

James Loney took over at first base and was every bit as good defensively as advertised, and Yunel Escobar joined the team, giving the Rays their best shortstop play since Jason Bartlett.

4. A healthy Evan Longoria

Longoria only played in 74 games in 2012 due to a partially torn left hamstring. The Rays posted a 47-27 record in those games and went 43-45 when he did not play. Longoria had his hamstring surgically repaired in the offseason, and he played in 160 games in 2013. Longoria is a tough out, who can hit for power and is unquestionably the Rays' best offensive player. On top of that, Longoria is a team leader, plays Gold Glove-caliber defense and is a winner. Maddon's job became significantly easier by being able to pencil in Longoria's name on the lineup card anytime he wanted during the 2013 season.

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 lot, but he was joined by Wil Myers, Matt Joyce, Loney, Kelly Johnson and Zobrist in helping the Rays in the power department.

3. Overcoming pitching injuries

Matt Moore got off to a fast start, survived a mild slump, and rediscovered the magic to post the best first half, numbers-wise, of any of the team's starters. In the second half he missed 31 games due to left elbow soreness, but managed to finish at 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA in 27 starts.

Meanwhile, staff ace David 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 horse, returned for the final three months. Over that span, he led the Major Leagues in innings (131 2/3) and fewest pitches per inning (13.8), and he ranked fourth among AL pitchers in ERA (2.53) and tied for fourth with nine wins. He topped off 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.

Like Moore and Price, Alex Cobb also missed a significant period of time due to injury as he got struck on the side of the head by a line drive. 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.

The overall excellence of the pitching was reflected in the fact that for the fourth consecutive year the Rays had the lowest opponents' batting average in the AL.

2. Myers and Archer arrive

Myers joined the team in mid-June, and the complexion of the offense changed immediately. The rookie slugger added power to the lineup and some much-needed protection for Longoria. Given the amount of hype surrounding the heralded youngster, bringing him up could have backfired had he not performed and had he not fit in inside the clubhouse. But Myers performed well enough to win the American League Rookie of the Year Award, and he proved to be a hit inside the clubhouse as well.

"He hits the ball as far as anybody in baseball right now," Maddon said. "To all fields, he hits for average, too. [He's a] good baserunner, and he runs well -- better than I thought, too. Defensively, we've got to help him a little bit. I thought he showed signs of being at least a solid outfielder. I think with technique, he'll develop. We'll work with him in Spring Training.

"Makeup wise, he definitely has a big league makeup. I talked a lot about him not being overwhelmed. ... This guy is going to be a big part of our future."

In addition to Myers' arrival, they also enjoyed Chris Archer's.

Everybody knew Archer had above-average stuff, but the question was whether he would find the command that would make him special. The 25-year-old right-hander arrived to the team at the first of June looking like he would continue to wear his old tag. Then the command clicked, and he took off, winning seven consecutive starts from June 23-July 27. Included in some of the gems he pitched were shutouts at New York against the Yankees and at Tropicana Field against the Astros. Archer also received strong consideration for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

1. Team chemistry

After posting a 55-41 mark in the first half, the Rays survived a 4-13 stretch from Aug. 25-Sept. 11 to finish at 37-30 in the second half. An 18-inning victory over the Orioles on Sept. 20 typified the way the Rays finished. The club followed that memorable game with a win the next day, and, eventually finished off a four-game sweep of the O's when Loney hit a pinch-hit, walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth. That sweep seemingly crystallized the team before the final stretch that resulted in a one-game playoff against the Rangers to end the season, which the Rays won in Arlington.

"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."

Longoria noted that he believed the 2013 team was the "tightest-knit group from top to bottom that we've had."

"I thought we had great team chemistry," Longoria said. "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."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for

Tampa Bay Rays, Chris Archer, Yunel Escobar, James Loney, Evan Longoria, Wil Myers, David Price, Ben Zobrist