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12/26/11 10:00 AM EST

Rays' playoff run stuns experts in 2011

Tampa Bay overcomes odds to secure postseason berth

ST. PETERSBURG -- Tampa Bay can look back at the 2011 season and remember the low expectations, followed by a great sense of accomplishment.

After winning the American League East division in 2010, the Rays saw much of their team leave via free agency and trades. Key players who left included: Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and Rafael Soriano.

Their departures left significant holes to be filled, particularly in the bullpen, which brought many new faces to the organization.

To the organization's credit, along with AL Manager of the Year Joe Maddon's, the unit somehow managed to come together as a group -- and the end results were amazing. Tampa Bay made another trip to the postseason, and great expectations were established for the future.

Many highlights punctuated the memorable season, including "Complete Game" James Shields and his 11 complete games, the emergence of AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, a sneak peak at Matt Moore, and the thrilling conclusion to the regular season.

Here are the five biggest storylines from the past 12 months:

5. Ramirez and Damon sign with the Rays

Hoping to bolster their offense for the 2011 season, the Rays signed veteran sluggers Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon to one-year deals.

The idea was to use one of the pair in left and the other as the designated hitter. Throughout Spring Training, the experiment appeared to be a winner -- as each of the veterans hit, each brought a form of leadership to the clubhouse and the Rays headed into the regular season with a healthy dose of optimism.

A week into the season, Ramirez retired after playing in just five games due to a suspension for having performance-enhancing drugs in his system during a drug test. His abrupt departure left Damon as the full-time DH, which ended up being a good thing for the team, as he performed well in the role and proved to be everything he was supposed to be in the way of a leader.

4. Rays' starters roll

Tampa Bay's starters posted an AL-best and club-record 3.53 ERA. In the last 20 years, just one AL team -- the 2010 Athletics -- posted a lower ERA by its starters (3.47).

The Rays' starters threw a club-record 1,058 innings, the most by an AL team since the 2005 White Sox (1,074). All 162 games were started by pitchers drafted and developed by the Rays, the only team in the Major Leagues that could make that claim.

During the season, the Rays' starters also established a Major League record by continuing a string of starts by pitchers under age 30 to 764 straight games.

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3. Four straight winning seasons

By winning 91 games, the Rays completed their fourth consecutive winning season, which began with their 2008 AL Championship campaign.

Only four teams have current streaks as long as the Rays: the Yankees (19), Red Sox (14), Phillies (9) and Cardinals (4).

The Rays have averaged 90 wins over the last four seasons, after averaging 90-plus losses the previous four years.

Only four other teams in Major League history can make that claim: the 1987-94 Atlanta Braves, the 1971-78 Philadelphia Phillies, the 1964-71 Kansas City/Oakland Athletics, and the 1997-2004 Minnesota Twins.

2. Biggest September comeback ever

The Rays were nine games out of playoff contention through Sept. 3 -- the most games any team has overcome in September to advance to the postseason.

St. Louis' 2011 squad proved to be the next closest, as the Cardinals were 8 1/2 games behind on Sept. 5 and the 1964 Cardinals were in third place and trailed Philadelphia by 8 1/2 games on Sept. 3.

Starting Sept. 4, the Rays were 16-8 and the Red Sox 6-18. The Rays passed Boston on the final day. It was the first day the Rays had been above the Red Sox in the standings since May 23.

1. The Final Comeback

In the Wild Card clinching game on the final day of the season -- Wednesday, Sept. 28 -- the Rays trailed the Yankees, 7-0, in the eighth inning. After scoring six in the eighth, Dan Johnson homered in the bottom of the ninth to send the game into extra innings.

Evan Longoria's walk-off homer in the 12th inning gave the Rays an 8-7 win.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Longoria is only the second player in Major League history to hit a walk-off home run in his team's final game of the regular season to clinch a postseason berth for his club. The other player to accomplish the feat: Bobby Thomson. Thomson hit his "Shot heard 'round the world" against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951.

The last time the Yankees lost after leading by at least seven runs in the eighth inning or later was Aug. 18, 1953, against the Washington Senators. The last time an AL team did it was when the Indians defeated the Rays, 11-10, on May 25, 2009.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.