2021 Tampa Bay Rays
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2021 Tampa Bay Rays / Franchise: Tampa Bay Rays / BR Team Page
Clinched Division: September 25, 2021, vs. Miami Marlins
Managed by Kevin Cash
History, Comments, Contributions
Coming off the second World Series appearance in team history, the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays were preseason favorites to repeat, at least as division champions, even though once again they had a busy offseason, trading away two of the starting pitchers who had got them to the World Series in Blake Snell and Charlie Morton. But if there is one thing the Rays are famous for, it's their ability to find winning ballplayers in the unlikeliest of places. Among their off-season additions were 41-year-old starting pitcher Rich Hill, and he seemed to have made a detour by Ponce de Leon's fountain of youth on his way to Tampa, but in typical Rays fashion - he would be dealt away only weeks after having been named the AL Pitcher of the Month for May.
Their month of April was so-so, as they went 13-14 with the surprising Boston Red Sox taking an early lead in the division, but they turned on the burners in the second half of May, reeling off a string of 16 wins in 17 games to move into first place. This included a four-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays in the Jays' temporary home in Dunedin, FL, in which they trailed in all four games only to win twice in extra innings, and another time in a 9th-inning comeback. In the middle of that streak, on May 21st, they did a very Rays thing, trading their starting shortstop, Willy Adames, to the Milwaukee Brewers in return of a pair of relief pitchers, then ducking expectations by promoting not the top prospect in baseball, Wander Franco, to take his place, but unheralded AAA player Taylor Walls, who stepped right into the breach like a grizzled veteran. Meanwhile, one the relievers obtained from Milwaukee, J.P. Feyereisen, picked up his first save two days after being acquired, and added a win and another two saves before the end of the month. Other big contributors included C Mike Zunino, who had slugged 12 homers by the end of the month, 3B Joey Wendle, whose OPS+ was 150, and OF/DH Randy Arozarena, the hero of the previous year's postseason, who was still technically a rookie, but was having a quietly excellent season with an OPS+ of 130. As a result, they were 35-20 as May ended, with a two-game lead on Boston.
But just like they looked like they were off to the races, the Rays hit another snag in June, going 12-14 and moving back into second place behind Boston. Franco did make his awaited debut during the month, on June 22nd, but playing third base as the Rays wanted to keep Walls' glove in the line-up at shortstop. They lost their first two games of July against the Blue Jays for a five-game losing streak, coming shortly on the heels of a seven-game one from June 15-22. Concerns were starting to mount, with their deficit against the Red Sox increasing to 4 1/2 games, but they turned things around quickly. After a home game scheduled on July 6th was postponed in fear of a possible hurricane landing in Florida, they faced the Cleveland Indians in a make-up doubleheader the next day and swept both games, the second one turning into a combined no-hitter with five pitchers contributing to the 4-0 win. Although it was not an official no-hitter as the game was only scheduled for seven innings, it was only the second time in franchise history that the Rays had held their opponents hitless, the first having come on July 26, 2010 when Matt Garza had pitched a complete game no-hitter. It was otherwise a typical Rays game: a bullpen game with Collin McHugh acting as the opener, and a stable of relievers finishing the work, with Josh Fleming, Diego Castillo, Matt Wisler and Pete Fairbanks all pitching in. Also typical was that there were four rookies in the starting line-up: Arozarena at DH, Franco at 3B, Walls at SS and Vidal Bruján, who had made his debut in the opening game of the twinbill, playing CF.
By July 4th, the Rays were trailing Boston by 4 1/2 games, after a five-game losing streak, but they immediately reeled in six straight wins just before the All-Star break, and the chase was on. That winning streak morphed into a stretch of 13 wins in 16 games and on July 24th, they were back into a tie with Boston. They then fell back again, to 2 1/2 games, but a three-game sweep of the Red Sox from July 30-August 1st put them back in the lead, up by a game and a half, their largest since mid-June. The Rays made a few trades at the deadline, acquiring DH Nelson Cruz from the Minnesota Twins and in more puzzling moves, sending reliever Castillo to the Seattle Mariners for J.T. Chargois and starter Rich Hill to the New York Mets for Tommy Hunter. However, the Rays never did things like everyone else, so observers just assumed that there was some method to their madness in sending away two of their better performing pitchers for moderate returns while in the middle of a very winnable pennant race. For example, the trade of Hill opened up a spot in the starting rotation for 21-year-old Luis Patiño, who had an excellent month in August, as did Shane McClanahan, who went 5-0, 2.76. That made the team forget the loss of opening day starter Tyler Glasnow, who had to undergo Tommy John surgery. On August 30th, a win improved their record to 83-48, which marked the first time in franchise history that they had been 35 games above .500. They then finished the month with another win, their 9th straight, their 21st victory of August. They were the first team since the "Moneyball" 2002 Oakland Athletics to have two months of 21+ wins in the same season. They clinched a postseason slot on September 22nd with a win over the Blue Jays, and were by then almost certain to win a second straight division title as their three pursuers - Boston, New York and Toronto - were locked in a cage match fight to secure the two wild card slots. Indeed, their title win was confirmed on September 25th with a 7-3 win over the Miami Marlins.
Awards and Honors
- All-Star: Andrew Kittredge, Joey Wendle and Mike Zunino
- AL Rookie of the Year: Randy Arozarena
- Topps All-Star Rookie Team: Randy Arozarena (OF) and Wander Franco (SS)
- AL Manager of the Year: Kevin Cash
- 2022 Tampa Bay Rays Media Guide, pg. 297
- Adam Berry: "Rays' pitching secret? It's surprisingly simple", mlb.com, April 3, 2021. 
- Adam Berry: "7-inning no-no still worth celebrating: 5 Rays pitchers combine to hold Indians hitless in nightcap", mlb.com, July 7, 2021. 
- Adam Berry: "Rays riding new horses in bullpen 'Stable'", mlb.com, August 5, 2021. 
- Adam Berry: "Rays cap historic month with 9th straight W", mlb.com, September 1, 2021. 
- Adam Berry: "Rays clinch berth, have 'bigger aspirations': Tampa Bay, AL's first team to reach playoffs, sets sights on AL East title -- and more", mlb.com, September 22, 2021. 
- Adam Berry: "Rays Way: How the AL's best team was built", mlb.com, October 6, 2021. 
- Sterling Bright: "Rays doing everything right in 15-1 run: Zunino homers, Phillips goes deep on birthday and AL East leaders win 4th straight", mlb.com, May 30, 2021. 
- Zach Crizer: "Have the Tampa Bay Rays found the Moneyball of a new generation?", Yahoo! Sports, October 7, 2021.