2018 was a great year for the Tampa Bay Rays. Off the field, they finally unveiled their plans for a new stadium. On it, they went 90-72 after four straight losing seasons. After improving 12 wins from 68 in 2016 to 80 in 2017, they improved by another 10 this year. They may have missed the playoffs for the fifth straight year, but there’s nothing they can do about the fact that they play in a division where two teams won 100+ games. The Rays had the best record among all non-playoff teams this year, becoming just the third team since the second Wild Card was introduced in 2012 to win at least 90 games and miss the postseason (with them also being one of those other two teams, missing the playoffs with a 90-72 record in 2012.Again, such is life in the American League East).
Playoffs or not, the Rays have a lot to be proud of after celebrating their 20th anniversary season with the sixth 90-win season in franchise history. Here’s a recap of the year that was anything but dull in Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay Rays 2018 Season Recap
We may always remember the 2018 season as the one where the Rays introduced the “opener.” After losing several starting pitchers (such as Nathan Eovaldi, Brent Honeywell, and Jose De Leon) to injuries in spring training, the Rays came up with an alternative to just going further and further down their depth chart for starting pitchers. Instead, the Rays would use a relief pitcher for the first inning or two, then bring in a “bulk guy,” who was essentially a starting pitcher just being used in a different order. The idea was that the pitcher who was going to be used for most of the game would get to start at the bottom of the order and it would take longer for the opposing team’s best hitters to see him more times.
The idea turned out to be a great success, and some other teams even started trying it. By the end of the season, the Rays were using just two starting pitchers (Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow) and using openers on the other three days. The Rays plan on continuing to use openers next season, which isn’t surprising, especially since Honeywell and De Leon will likely miss the start of the season as they continue to recover from Tommy John surgery, and Anthony Banda will likely miss most or all of it.
From their nine walk-off victories (five of them courtesy of walk-off home runs) to their two, eight-game winning streaks, there were a lot of great moments for the Rays this season. One of them came on Opening Day. Trailing the Boston Red Sox 4-0 as they went to the bottom of the eighth inning, the Rays stormed back with a six-run frame. The big blow came from Denard Span, the Tampa native playing his first game for his hometown team, who hit a bases-clearing triple that turned a 4-2 deficit into a 5-4 lead. The Rays went on to win 6-4.
There were some more thrilling come-from-behind victories, too. On July 22, the Rays trailed the Miami Marlins 4-1 as they went to the bottom of the ninth inning, and still trailed 4-2 with two outs. With the Rays on the verge of being swept at home by the lowly Marlins, Daniel Robertson hit the first walk-off grand slam in franchise history off Kyle Barraclough to give Tampa Bay a 6-4 win. On September 10, with the Rays again down to their final out in the bottom of the ninth and trailing the Cleveland Indians 5-4, Ji-Man Choi hit a two-run walk-off homer off Brad Hand to give the Rays a 6-5 win.
While the Rays opened the season with a great moment, they also finished it with one. There may not be one signature moment that stands out from their 9-4 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on September 30th, but picking up their 90th win was a great way to cap off a great season.
Some people have trouble naming a starting pitcher MVP since they only play every fifth game. However, in a year where the Rays didn’t really have a standout position player (Joey Wendle led the way with 3.7 fWAR), Blake Snell is an easy call for team MVP. The only question is whether he’ll also be awarded the American League Cy Young.
Snell’s numbers were absolutely dazzling. He went 21-5 with a 1.89 ERA, 2.95 FIP, and 0.97 WHIP over 31 starts. He struck out 221 batters in 180.2 innings, good for a mark of 11.01 per nine. It’s not a stretch to say Snell had one of the best seasons any starting pitcher has had in recent history. To put it in perspective, the last American League pitcher to have at least 20 wins and an ERA below 2.00 was Roger Clemens in 1990. Clemens went 21-6 with a 1.93 ERA for the Red Sox that year.
The Rays’ season wasn’t perfect. While they had two eight-game winning streaks, those were cancelled out by two eight-game losing streaks. They also lost too many games to teams they should have beaten. They went just 2-4 against the Marlins, 2-4 against the Chicago White Sox, 0-3 against the Philadelphia Phillies, 1-6 against the Seattle Mariners, and 11-8 wasn’t a good enough record against a historically awful Baltimore Orioles team.
Still, it’s difficult to complain. There was much more good than bad. Pretty much nobody thought this team had a chance to win 90 games. Their plus-70 run differential graded out to a Pythagorean record of 89-73, so it’s not like they lucked their way into their record by winning a bunch of close games, either. The Rays went just 28-31 in one-run games, with their 31 one-run losses and 59 one-run games leading Major League Baseball. The fact that the Rays had the success they did with so many young players and rookies also provides a lot of hope going forward. However, playing in the AL East will continue to be a giant obstacle for the Rays in their quest to return to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
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