The Tampa Bay Rays started the season 13-0 while outscoring opponents 101-30; the team finished 0-2 and could only muster one run when it mattered the most.
In April, many fans thought 2023 could be the year for a long-awaited World Series boat parade in St. Petersburg. Instead, the Rays’ postseason spanned just two days and concluded with a 7-1 thumping by the Texas Rangers Oct. 4 for a two-game sweep in the American League Wild Card Series.
It was an abrupt and quiet ending for a team that powered its way to first place in the AL East from Opening Day to mid-July. “It’s frustrating, but it’s part of the game,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash.
However, the Devil Rays teams from the late 1990s and early 2000s could only dream of winning 99 games and reaching the postseason for five straight years. There are reasons for optimism, even immediately following a disappointing finish to Tampa Bay’s 25th Anniversary season.
“We got some young players who got some reps in a pretty intense environment – playoff baseball – and that is impactful,” Cash told the Catalyst. “I’d like to think that we and some of those young players will all be better for it moving forward.
“It stings a little bit right now, but hopefully, they can revisit some of those thoughts and the mindset they had in there and make adjustments as needed.”
Before the game, sideline reporter Tricia Whitaker reminded Erik Neander, president of baseball operations, that only five players remained active throughout the 162-game season. “Five is more than I thought,” he replied.
The Rays lost three of their top five starting pitchers to season-ending elbow surgeries. Star shortstop Wander Franco left the team in August amid investigations into allegations of inappropriate relationships with minors.
Second baseman Brandow Lowe ended the season on the bench in a knee brace. Jose Siri played Game 1 while recovering from a fractured right hand, but sat out the elimination game.
“Look, that’s an easy narrative,” Cash said about the injuries. “We are who we are, and we finished the regular season with the guys we had. I still feel that we could have had a better showing with the roster we had.”
Tampa Bay’s lack of offense is an obvious culprit. Curtis Mead’s seventh-inning run-scoring single broke the team’s 33-inning postseason scoring drought.
“I’m glad we scored a run because if not, we’d have been talking about that a lot,” Cash said. However, starting pitcher Zach Eflin and Game 1 starter Tyler Glasnow allowed seven earned runs in just 10 innings.
Eflin’s 31 starts set a career-high and provided a stabilizing force for a decimated pitching rotation. He finished the season 16-8 with a 3.50 earned run average and said he didn’t plan on the early playoff exit from a somber locker room.
“There’s no easy way to say it sucks,” Eflin added. “I really didn’t have any offseason plans until the first week of November and the second week of November. It’s not a good feeling.”
Eflin said the team would build on the team’s character and culture established amid unprecedented regular season success. He said the Rays would do anything possible to improve this offseason and “move on.”
Like his manager, Eflin, 29, believes his younger teammates will benefit from a year in the clubhouse and better understand “what it’s like to be a big leaguer.” In addition, many of the myriad injured Rays are eager to return in 2024.
Pitcher Shane Baz, 24, had season-ending elbow surgery in 2022. Baz completed rehab and said he will “be ready to go” in spring training.
He believes “hungry dogs run faster,” and the disappointing end to the postseason will ultimately help the team grow. “We’re usually a team built on scrappiness and guys that are trying to make a name for themselves,” Baz added.
“I think everybody gets a little hungrier every year.”
Rays fans have several additional bright spots to consider over the offseason. Randy Arozarena continued to thrill fans with his power, speed and charisma that turned Friday night outfield seating into “Randy Land.”
Josh Lowe, 25, and Isaac Paredes, 24, provided much-needed regular season production in their first full big-league seasons. Yandy Diaz became the team’s first player to win a batting title after hitting .330 this season.
“Certainly, you guys (the media) know the adversity that I feel like they overcame,” Cash said. “It’s a pretty special group – want more for them than maybe we got.”