Rays get contributions all around
Every player on roster helps earn division title
There's a champagne bottle on the shelf of every Rays locker, a single artifact of last Saturday's franchise-first playoff clinching celebration.
A reminder for the long-beleaguered franchise and its players that the event did, in fact, happen? Perhaps.
But more likely, the empty bottle serves as a rightful token below all 36 nameplates, as each hanging jersey has had a hand in the 96 wins it has taken the newly crowned American League East champion Rays to get here.
"It's not about any one person; It's about the group," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It really is. You talk about our group and we've been successful because so many different people have ownership of this moment."
It's a recurring theme, this revolving door of heroes.
Game after game, players the rest of the league doesn't give a second thought -- like recent callup Dan Johnson -- become all opponents talk about. Fenway faithful are still cursing Johnson's pinch-hit game-tying homer off Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, and with good reason. The Rays not only went on to win that Sept. 9 contest, they won the following night -- off a three-run, extra-innings homer from Carlos Pena -- to take the series.
With an exhausted bullpen and closer Troy Percival exiting with back pain, rarely used reliever Jason Hammel got the nod to get the Rays out of a bases-loaded no-out jam, securing his first save of the season against Boston's middle of the order.
Call it luck. Or fate, even. But -- when speaking of the Rays -- don't call the unsung hero role unusual.
"Everybody here has done something," reliever J.P. Howell said. "Whether it's one big pitch or one big [at-bat]."
The Rays' unconventional rally from April 23's three-run deficit was one of the earliest signs, as the club notched its first of three victories against Toronto ace Roy Halladay. Rookie Evan Longoria -- who had been in the Majors for a mere two weeks -- connected for a two-out, game-tying single and non-roster invitee Eric Hinske delivered the go-ahead RBI.
"We don't know that we're not supposed to do that," Longoria said of beating arguably the game's best pitcher in Halladay. "We only know one thing, and that's to just keep hitting until the end."
Those hits haven't just come from the All-Star bat of Longoria.
They've come from locker mates Ben Zobrist and Gabe Gross, whose bench bats have proved to be the difference in countless games. Zobrist's two-run homer on July 18 was the only offense the Rays needed to snap a seven-game skid, while Gross connected off Chicago southpaw Matt Thornton for a June 1 extra-innings walk-off homer.
They've come from understudies like former Braves castoff Willy Aybar, who delivered the game-winning hit in Aug. 19's win over the Angels. Aybar collected four game-winning RBIs and was one of 10 different Rays bats to seal a "W" when the team was without both Longoria and Carl Crawford.
And that little guy in the chair next to Aybar, wrapping a knee brace around his right leg? He's been pretty big too. So big, in fact, that Maddon frequently dubs shortstop Jason Bartlett the MVP of the team, as the infielder's range has saved countless hits -- and runs -- up the middle.
"Everybody here wants to contribute, everybody here wants to do their part in making us win," said Carl Crawford, who was reinstated Friday, after missing 43 games with right middle finger surgery. "When you have 25 guys with that mind frame, you never know where the help might come from."
Who knows what would have transpired in June 17th's win over the first-place Cubs had reserve outfielder Justin Ruggiano not taken a faceful of wall in catching Geovany Soto's ninth-inning line drive? The out kept the basepaths clear as Chicago went on to single and double, bringing the game within one run. Longoria's game-ending bare-handed put-out from third merely kept the Rays' highlight reel rolling.
"You look at every guy that's played on this team," Maddon said. "At some point, almost every one of them have been a reason we have won on a particular evening."
A closer glance at each nameplate proves that the third-year skipper isn't just spouting eternal optimism.
There's Akinori Iwamura -- nestled in the left corner of the clubhouse -- and his two-run, game-deciding homer that sealed April 26's win over the Red Sox. Or Cliff Floyd, two lockers down, and his walk-off blast on May 30 that sent the designated hitter barreling into a mob scene at home plate. Pena has a team-leading 39 go-ahead or game-tying RBIs.
But of the Rays' Major League-leading 11 walk-off wins, perhaps none were more emotional than that of Rocco Baldelli, who was sidelined until August with a rare mitochondrial disorder that causes extreme fatigue. The outfielder's game-winning double on Aug. 30 secured the Rays a series win over Baltimore, and helped Tampa Bay garner a franchise-best single-month record (21-7) in August.
"We go out there every single day and feel like we're going to win that game," Baldelli said. "That something is going to happen, somebody will do something, and we will win."
Improbable? Yes. Contagious? Even more so.
But if the Rays are going to continue to pop the cork in celebration, they know they must do it with Maddon's team-oriented 9=8 mantra.
"It's a team," Zobrist said. "It's not a collection of individuals.
That's a huge thing. The other teams knows they can never let up because everybody [on the Rays] can get the job done."
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.