You know when you’re watching a TV series and they do an episode where they start with the disaster and then show you the run up to said disaster using a normal day littered with foreshadowing and impending doom?
This article is one of those, and the episode is the Tampa Bay Rays’ 2023 season.
Spring was fine, spring was good. Wounds were being licked after losing a series favourite (Kevin Kiermaier) in the previous episode but the rest of the gang had remained largely intact with only a couple of bit-part players around the edge moving on. The bloodbath that was the unceremonious dumping out of the 2022 Wildcard Series at the hands of the Guardians was in the rear view mirror and surely that zombie wouldn’t come back to bite us again.
More than just coming back and having another go, 2022’s group of young recruits, revamped bullpen guys and unlikely stars was coming together. What Rays fans knew was that what looked like a quieter off season where the only big new signing was Zach Eflin betrayed the underlying coming-of-age of a number of rookies. You didn’t need a new outfielder if you’ve got a Josh Lowe or a Jose Siri, or another infielder if you’ve got Vidal Brujan or a Jonathan Aranda, not to mention franchise cornerstone Wander Franco and woah, look at that rotation! Glasnow (temporarily injured), McClanahan, Eflin, Springs, Rasmussen. Show me the franchise that isn’t a bit jealous of that lot.
2022? What 2022? 2023 is awesome! Detroit, Washington, Oakland, Boston, the sweeps keep piling up on sweeps. Sure, they’re not the cream of this year’s crop, but you can only beat what’s in front of you and the story here is that they are beating these teams well. The rotation looks like a collection of Cy Young contenders and slap-hitting replacement position players can’t get enough dingers.
By mid May the team is the dominant, consensus pick best team in baseball sitting pretty at 30-10. Baltimore are keeping them honest with a very good start of their own, and the Rangers are making a good go of the American League (AL) West, but nobody can see them keeping that up.
At the end of April, the excellent Jeffrey Springs had joined Shane Baz on the injured list with a forearm injury. It’s bad luck but it happens to every team. Rasmussen is next. Shut down for TBC at this point, it was to spell the end of his season as he would require UCL surgery. Despite backup starter Josh Flemming also sustaining a forearm injury, Glasnow was about to be back from his Spring Training strain so it’d all be ok…right?
Results didn’t crater, but they stabilised to a more normal level for a good team during the rest of May and through June.
July, however, was when it all started unravelling – there are rumblings of fallings out between teammates, it’s almost if there is something going on behind the scenes that we are not yet aware of…
McClanahan took an IL stint with a back issue to start the month, which put yet more pressure on a rotation already relying heavily on poorly cast special guest stars. The team slumped. Desperate for some star power, the Rays traded away decent prospect Kyle Manzardo to the Guardians for Aaron Civale then inexplicably turned so-so reliever Zack Littell into a decent everyday starter and fan favourite. If any team can Rays their way out of a pitching crisis it’s our heroes, right?
Wrong – August happened.
The Rays opened August with Shane McClanahan leaving a game early complaining of a tight forearm which inevitably lead to his season ending in Tommy John surgery. This was but a prelude to the ‘all is lost moment’ which came on 12 August. It has been well documented that Wander Franco was put on administrative leave pending an investigation into allegations regarding inappropriate relationships with children. As of writing, that investigation is ongoing. This was and is far more serious than just another plot twist. There will be a time and a place for considering the implications and learning points from this, but it isn’t today and it’s not in a season review.
Waivers and prospects and young guys and old faces. Some creative casting was needed down the stretch to fill some holes. Erasmo Ramirez, an old star from previous series, returned to eat some innings and tug on some heart strings while new characters were introduced in the form of Osleivis Basabe and Junior Caminero. Taj Bradley, who had himself made his first appearance during an earlier pitching crisis, returned for the run up to the finale. Were they ready? Had they had enough time to fully flesh out their characters? Possibly not, but the Rays team had long since transitioned from a collection of polished overachievers to a cobbled together rag-tag bunch who were somehow still getting the job done.
With old foes vanquished and languishing at the bottom of the AL East, the Orioles took on the role of the obnoxious upstart rival competing with the Rays for the division title. In a very close and tightly-fought battle of tit-for-tat, the Rays couldn’t close the gap on the O’s, but neither could the team from Baltimore pull away. In the end, this close competition may be the tragic flaw that ended up sealing the Rays’ fate. Injuries to Yandy Diaz, Jose Siri, Jason Adam and Brandon Lowe when they possibly should have been wrapped up in cotton wool may have contributed to problems in the final scenes.
They settled for the wildcard. Nobody fancied going toe-to-toe with the Rays, who, despite the replacements, had kept thundering on to a 99-win season. Their final series against the Blue Jays only lived to determine if they would be welcoming wildcard teams from Toronto, Houston or Texas. It was to be the latter and the scene was set for our heroes’ final and triumphant victory. UK-friendly game times were great for us Brits, but poor for local attendance (uhe smallest post season crowd since 1919) at the much maligned Tropicana Field.
Game One was shambolic – Glasnow looked shaky but held it together, which is more than can be said of the usually stellar defence. Twice balls got away from the normally solid Diaz at first, Walls failed to scoop a grounder, Pinto threw wildly gifting the Rangers a base and Siri looked all at sea having clearly returned too quickly from injury. Four official errors suggested that the official scorers were being kind. Not to be upstaged by the poor fielding the hitting vanished…completely. Possibly haunted by the ghosts of 2022’s wildcard, the 2023 Rays were shut out by Texas pitching.
Game Two. Things can only get better. That’s how the script is written, right? The beleaguered and battered heroes fronted by stalwart local boy Zach Eflin who have carried us on their back all season long come back from the edge of oblivion to rescue the day?
It doesn’t start well. Margot misses a catch in Centre and the bats remain quiet.
The ball slips past Lowe, Adolis Garcia explodes, Eflin’s lonely head is down, Carter is on again.
Unlike the TV shows, there’s no dramatic comeback to this story;
- Leroy Gibbs quits the force
- The Enterprise explodes
- Rick Grimes is eaten by zombies
- The 2023 Rays are done
Rob Noverraz is one of the co-hosts of the Bat Flips & Nerds podcast, and can be found on Twitter @RobNoverraz.
Featured image – Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images