ST. PETERSBURG — Much of what we write from now on will be looking forward, to what decisions the Rays make to change their roster for 2020, how their chances to return to the playoffs are impacted by other teams’ moves, which players will be most key to their success and, yes, where they may be playing in the future.
But today seems like a good time to look back at the thrilling season that just ended with some random thoughts:
• Radio man Andy Freed asked where I’d rank this season. It’s second best to the 2008 breakthrough none of us saw coming. Even though the Rays got no further than 2010, or 2011, or 2013 in losing in the division series, this year seemed more successful, and much more like the start of something.
• After the discouraging Game 1 loss in Houston, manager Kevin Cash was heading back into the clubhouse after a quick hello to wife Emily and the kids, and said he remained confident because “this team is amazing.” Taking the Astros to a fifth game, and staying close until the eighth, validated that once again.
• It can sound trite, but there was a closeness and bond to this team that was extraordinary and served it well in overcoming injuries to key players as well as sparking late-game rallies. “Anyway you want to define the word ‘team,’ this was it,” GM Erik Neander said. “These guys played like a team and behind the scenes they behaved like a team.” Or, as pitcher Blake Snell said simply, “We just really do love each other.”
• Similarly, the Rays seized on the oft-overused “shock the world” mantra. But after being dissed about their playoff chances, tabbed underdogs in the AL wild-card game and given little chance against the Astros (and virtually none after losing the first two), they had a point, which Kevin Kiermaier made often, and rode it for a while.
• Cash likely won’t win the American League manager of the year award, which is voted on at the end of the regular season, but his work was key to the success all season. Even in some of the moves that backfired or made headlines (such as pulling Ryan Yarbrough after 8 2/3 shutout innings), he showed a consistency to his decision-making process. Less obvious, getting players to buy-in and go along with the platoon roles and unorthodox strategies they employ. The job he and pitching coach Kyle Snyder did in the ALDS Game 4 “bullpen day” was exceptional.
• Beloved former Astro Charlie Morton closing out a Rays Game 5 win in Houston would have been some scene.
• Whatever it took — since the Trop was still in St. Pete, bridges were still jammed, games were played on weekdays, tickets weren’t cheap — Rays fans deserve credit for showing up, bringing the noise and life back to the ballpark. “What they did the two games here was unbelievable,” Cash said. “It helped us win.”
• Cash finally admitted Friday that what seemed obvious but was smart strategy to keep the players’ confidence up: “As an organization we did a good job of kind of tempering our real feelings about some of these injuries that came up throughout the season — they were daggers.”