10/04/12 10:00 AM ET
Rays fight till the end, but time not on their side
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
Unfortunately for the Rays, even though the final act was a peak, it could not overcome a profound valley and Tampa Bay did not make the playoffs after doing so in three of the previous four seasons.
When the Rays left Spring Training, they were certain they had one of the best, if not the best, pitching staff in baseball.
Question marks came in relation to the bullpen -- questions that were more than answered by Fernando Rodney, who anchored a relief corps. But it was the offense that proved to be Tampa Bay's shortfall.
And with the team's mantra based on pitching and defense, the club always seemed willing to sacrifice a little less hitting in favor of a little more leather.
Loading up in the offseason to address the offense, the Rays brought in Carlos Pena and Luke Scott to help generate more power. And Jeff Keppinger was signed to bring aboard a veteran capable of making consistent contact -- a missing ingredient for the offense.
The team got off to a terrific start, posting a 15-8 mark in the first month of the season.
"I thought it was a great mix of players coming into Spring Training," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "And the way it started out, it appeared that way. You saw what we did the first month of the season. Luke was driving in runs like crazy. Carlos hits a grand slam against [CC] Sabathia, which he was zero for his life against. Then Matt Joyce gets off to a great start, everything [was going well]."
Evan Longoria then went on the disabled list with a partially torn left hamstring, leaving the Rays to begin May without their top offensive weapon, and he would remain on the disabled list until early August.
"My comment at the time was, 'For him to get hurt right now with the complementary players we had, I thought we could absorb it,'" Maddon said. "I really did."
Without Longoria, the Rays' highly touted staff continued to soar, but the offense began to fade badly. The team went 14-14 in May followed by a 12-15 June and a 13-13 July.
Once Longoria returned from the DL, as did others, the offense began to click in August. Combined with the pitching that never faltered, the Rays went 17-11 in August, and when the team got off to a 4-0 start in September, the Rays were looking like the team many forecast to go to the World Series.
But the offensive woes would resurface, resulting in a dismal two-week September stretch that saw the team's hopes for reaching the postseason slowly fade away. The Rays made a valiant effort at the end to make it close, but ultimately, they had simply dug too deep of a hole to recover.
"For whatever reason, it's been a difficult year for some of our guys," Maddon said. "Why? I have no idea why they have struggled as much as they have. But coming into the season, I thought it was a great mix."
Record: 90-72, third in AL East
Defining moment: Longoria went on the disabled list May 1 with a partially torn left hamstring. At that point, the Rays had a 14-7 record and were in first place in the AL East. The Rays then went 43-45 without him, and the offense did not give any semblance of potency until his return on Aug. 7. For any idea of what losing Longoria meant to the team's offense, consider that from June 11, 2011, until May 1, Longoria led the Major Leagues in RBIs (105) and also led the AL in home runs (31).
What went right: As the Rays head into the 2013 season, they carry with them perhaps the strongest starting staff in baseball, particularly at the top with David Price and James Shields providing a one-two, lefty-righty punch. In addition to the pair at the top, the team's starting pitching showed great depth with the likes of Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann and Chris Archer. And there's a chance that Wade Davis could return to the rotation depending on how the winter goes. Anchored by Rodney, the bullpen did its job, giving the Rays arguably their best relief corps in team history. Particularly encouraging was the work of Davis, who made a nice transition to the bullpen, and Jake McGee, who became an overpowering figure out of the bullpen.
What went wrong: Injuries haunted the Rays for much of the season, and so did the team's offense. While Longoria's injury proved to be the most difficult for the Rays to absorb, other injuries affected the team's play. B.J. Upton and Kyle Farnsworth began the season on the disabled list, and others who followed on the DL included Longoria, Scott, Niemann, Desmond Jennings and Keppinger. The injury to Keppinger served as a microcosm of how random and frustrating the injury bug can be as the infielder suffered a broken toe after getting hit by a batted ball while sitting in the dugout. The frustration of having injured players paled in comparison to the frustration of having brilliant pitching performances wasted by a lack of offense. In August alone, the Rays were shut out six times -- including a perfect game in Seattle by Felix Hernandez -- while Rays pitchers shut out the opposition three times. Much of the blame for the team's offensive woes could be attributed to the lack of production by left-handed hitters Pena, Scott and Joyce.
Biggest surprise: On a team with little offense, Keppinger proved to be the steadiest performer. The veteran infielder was signed to a one-year deal to give the team a better presence against left-handed pitching. When the injury bug hit, he became an everyday player and handled the transition with ease, tearing up left-handed pitching and doing a more-than-adequate job against right-handers. In addition, he made contact, a missing ingredient on the 2012 team as well as other recent Rays teams.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.