News, Analysis & UpdatesJanuary 31, 2009

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Chillin’ in the Sun: Rays 2008 in Review

By Dennis Ross

The story of the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays began like many great teams did, with a motto. That motto was “9=8″. Joe Maddon preached this message to his players as they prepared for the next challenge, which veterans preached to the younger players in times of difficulty. 9=8 means if nine players play their best for nine innings every day, then they will be one of the eight teams that make it to the playoffs. Gabe Gross, a part-time RF who was acquired early in the 2008 season was quoted as saying, “It’s was as much 9=8 as it was more along the lines of 13=8″ referring to various others who came off the bench and out of the bullpen for the Rays. Tampa Bay was more then just one or two players carrying the team, it was a combined effort from everybody.

How were the Rays able to beat down Boston and New York, the two power houses of the AL East? “A bit of luck and a lot of hard work”, according to manager Joe Maddon, the man at the center of the Rays renaissance. Maddon began his career as a bench manager for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, acting as interim manager in 1996 and 1999, where he won 27 out of 51 games total in those two stints. Mike Scioscia was established as the new Angels coach in 2000 and Maddon stayed on with the Angels until the end of the 2005 season, at which time he agreed to become the Rays fourth manager in four years, taking over for Lou Piniella. Joe’s first two years with Tampa produced a .391 winning percentage and a couple last places finishes in the American League East. Tampa management held true to their course and retained Maddon, seeing him as the man who would turn their team around. Needless to say, he did so in 2008 by producing a .599 winning percentage, winning manager of the year honors for the AL and coming within three victories of the teams first World series crown. Needless to say, Maddon deflects the teams success towards the players, saying what good is a preacher if his message is not followed?

Along with their manager, the Rays roster seemed to have grown rapidly prior to the start of the ‘08 campaign. They retooled their defensive unit and brought in SP Matt Garza and SS Jason Bartlett in a deal for OF Delmon Young. The Rays also brought in thirty-eight year-old closer Troy Percival to finish games and another veteran in Cliff Floyd to provide a bat off the bench. Suffice to say that these moves helped create a great atmosphere in the club house and guidance for young stars like Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, and David Price who became the corner stones of the Rays as the season wore on. Dioner Navarro grew into the starting catcher role and provided a good bat for the Rays as the season wore down. Carlos Pena, fresh off his AL Comeback player of the year season in 2007, continued his success in 2008 by driving in over 100 runs for the second straight year and by winning his first Gold Glove at first base.

Besides the lineup, which improved drastically from years past, they experienced a sensational season from its pitching staff. Led by Scott Kazmir and James Shields, the Rays owned the third best team ERA in the majors, with only the Toronto Blue Jays and the Los Angeles Dodgers posted better numbers. The bullpen was dominated by Troy Percival, who saved 28 games, and by Grant Balfour, the hard throwing right hander who struck out 82 in 58 and 1/3 innings, while holding opponents to a 1.54 ERA.

After winning the AL East, the Rays motto changed slightly. They prepared to face a Chicago White Sox team with postseason experience and a fiery motivator in manager Ozzie Guillen. After going up three games to one, the motto was whittled down to 9=4. If nine people did their jobs, they would be one of four teams competing for the title as Baseball’s best team. Tampa Bay then faced a determined Red Sox squad for the right to represent the AL in the World Series. After an exciting seven game series, which ended in an exciting 3-1 win for the Rays in game seven, the Rays prepared to face the Phillies in the World Series. The motto became 9=2, and the Cinderella story was almost complete. Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton were leading the way for the Rays, as Longoria had batted .262 with six HR’s and eleven RBI’s against Boston and Chicago. Upton upped his game to a whole new level; batting .300 with seven HR’s and 15 RBI’s in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Unfortunately, everything seemed to stop against the Phillies who split the first two games at Tropicana Field and went on to win the next three at Citizen’s Bank Park, taking the series and the crown. The perfect season was smeared, but at least Tampa had something to strive for in 2009 as they fight to establish themselves as legitimate contenders.

In the off season, three Rays were recognized for their outstanding work in 2008. Manager Joe Maddon was awarded AL Manager of the Year, Rookie 3B Evan Longoria was awarded the AL Rookie of the Year award, and 1B Carlos Pena was awarded the AL Gold Glove for his outstanding. With the exorcism of the demons of the past, the Rays have a bright future ahead of them.

Dennis Ross is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with Dennis in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of Sun Shine.
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