On the last day of September, the Tampa Bay Rays still had a chance. They could win out, the Baltimore Orioles or Oakland Athletics could start losing, and they could sneak into the postseason as the second Wild Card, having pulled off their second miracle in as many years. It was a long shot, but the Rays for years have seemed subject to some extra-forgiving personal deity willing to overlook numerous flaws – heaps of strikeouts, some toothpick bats, a stadium that is to the finer parks in baseball what Fruit By The Foot is to apple pie – and grant triumph after unlikely triumph. They had already won nine of their last ten. Their ace and American League Cy Young candidate David Price was ready to pitch. And so, as the Rays took the field in Chicago to face the White Sox and pitcher Jose Quintana on September 30, they did so full of hope that they would play well and, across the country, another team would play poorly, that they would eventually get a ticket entered in baseball’s wild year-end raffle.
If the Rays of recent vintage connote a hodgepodge of excellent pitchers, adequate-to-subpar bats, and Evan Longoria, then this year’s team was maybe the most Raysish of all. With Price joined in the starting rotation by James Shields, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson and with a bullpen founded on record-setting closer Fernando Rodney, the Rays allowed 577 runs over the course of the year, the fewest in baseball. Longoria, nursing a hamstring injury, missed 88 games. The up-and-comers and rejuvenation projects failed to pan out, Luke Scott accumulating an OPS of .724, Desmond Jennings one of .702, Carlos Peña one of .684. The team tended to the extremes, excellent and dismal.
No Ray more embodied those extremes than center
fielder B.J. Upton. Upton, who in the infancy of the Rays’ ramshackle empire compiled a strong 2007 season and a tremendous 2008 postseason, smacking seven home runs and propelling the Rays to the World Series, has spent the past few years hitting for some power, playing an exciting center field, and failing to deliver on his early promise. In 2009, he followed his remarkable October with the worst season of his career, his OPS dropping to .686. These days, he is good for about twenty homers and 150 strikeouts. His long, smooth swing gives him easy pop but also dilutes his ability to react, as he misses pitches often, and badly. Still, his talents remain desired enough on the free agent market that he will wear another uniform in 2013, the Rays almost certainly planning on sticking to their buy-low, let-go-high blueprint.
On September 30, though, Upton hit second for the Rays in Chicago. Before him, Jennings had tripled to lead off. On the second pitch he saw, Upton connected and turned a hanging breaking ball into a long, high, left field home run. Though his swing lacks the solidity and assurance of baseball’s best hitters’ – it is almost the opposite of Albert Pujols’ – it is idyllic when it works. The bat starts high above Upton’s head, his hands beside his ear and the bat’s end pointed straight up, and then after a short, rhythmic hitch speeds in a low loop through the zone until it ascends again, raised high in his left hand. The swing is the shape of a smile. And here, it caught Quintana’s pitch flush and sent it cutting Chicago’s bright afternoon air.
Upton would double in the fifth inning down the left field line and hit another home run in the ninth, this off reliever Addison Reed, helping the Rays score six runs, a healthy total with Price pitching. The tall, left-handed ace surrendered three hits and two runs in the fourth inning, but, that minor tribulation aside, pitched with the form that made him perhaps the American League’s best starter. Four-seam fastballs teleported to the plate, and cutters hopped at the last moment onto the corner. The occasional curveball disrupted timing. He threw 109 pitches and 72 strikes over seven uneventful innings, displaying a set expression that suggested ease more than determination. After the formality of a Rodney save, the Rays won, 6-2.
General managers build teams for a long season of streaks and slumps, surprises and disappointments. Some players will do more than expected, some will do less, and the prudent compiler of talent will place little stock in best-case scenarios. The fan, though, is free to imagine the ideal, and the ideal of the 2012 Rays presented itself during this game. Price dominated, Longoria patrolled third base and added a couple hits, and Upton slugged. Nine out of ten became ten out of eleven.
The next day, Tampa Bay defeated Baltimore. Eleven of twelve, and hope remained. A few hours later, though, in Oakland, the Athletics beat the Texas Rangers to secure their own playoff berth and eliminate the Rays. When manager Joe Maddon woke up on October 2 – he had said that, in spite of the Rays’ season hanging in the balance in California, he planned to sleep “like a baby” – he found that his team had no meaningful baseball left.
So the Rays were one of a handful of teams – the White Sox, Angels, and Dodgers merit inclusion in the category – good enough to matter for all but the last portion of the 2012 season. They were the also-rans. While they may torture their fans with their imperfections, baseball benefits from their presence. October gives baseball renewed order, as ace faces ace and each team has its goal precisely set, but September packs a more organic brand of excitement, bringing a long season to a panicked end. For those teams too unstable to realize the sustained success of the division winners, the month affords not just a shot at redemption but the opportunity to express a distinct brand of importance. And as the Rays scurried from Tampa to Boston to Chicago back to Tampa at the season’s end, compiling wins with the ferocity of a cartoon montage – all big blasts and painted corners and outfield scoreboard-watching – they showed everyone what they could have been, if not what they were.