2021 Tampa Bay Rays
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2021 Tampa Bay Rays / Franchise: Tampa Bay Rays / BR Team Page
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.
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 Diego 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 return while in the middle of a very winnable pennant race.
Awards and Honors
- 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. 
- 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.