Game Day Connections with the Tampa Bay Rays

This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com

The Red Sox and Rays meet today, the final game between the clubs that doesn’t have any meaning. In less than a week, they will meet again to resume the rivalry which the Rays took the upper hand in last years ALCS. Who would’ve imagined Rocco Baldelli would wind up in a Boston uniform after years with the Rays? Who would’ve guessed a Rays castoff in Rocco Baldelli would be acquired by Boston to help regain their status atop the AL East? How did we get here?

Well, Soon after the Tampa Bay Rays came into existence, they became a landing spot for aging baseball talent. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, their pitching was heavy on the aging aspect and light on the talent. With Wade Boggs, Jose Canseco, and Fred McGriff leading the offense, Bobby Witt and Dave Eiland were getting playing time on the Rays mound. The average age of Tampa Bay’s team was over 30 years old.

Within a few seasons of 90+ losses, the franchise slowly went in a different direction; towards youth. By 2003, the average age was close to 26 years old, and filled with players who had little or no prior experience in everyday roles. The ’03 team tipped the scale in the other direction, as their pitching too would be youthful. Of the 10 pitchers who would get a turn in the rotation, 6 of them were under the age of 27. The 2003 team would go on to lose a franchise record 106 games. This roster would include Jonny Gomez, Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli. Though the team would struggle through several more terrible seasons, it wouldn’t get worse than 2003. In 2006, the Rays again hit the 100+ loss high water mark, and the roster included another 8 players who would remain on the team in 2008. Entering the 2008 season, the Rays were expected to lose 90+ games, especially considering they had at least 13 players who would remain from the terrible years of before.

Something happened along the way to their expected 90 loss season. The Second Coming of Carlos Pena and Japanese import Akinori Iwamura were given protection in a lineup with veterans Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske to go along with rookie sensation Evan Longoria. Troy Percival and several other veterans were brought in to compliment a youthful bullpen. Floyd, Hinske and Percival represented 3 World Series championships between them. During the 2008 postseason Rocco Baldelli, who suffered through a mysterious illness that left him sapped of energy, would crush a game-typing home run in Game 5 of the World Series versus the Phillies. Despite Baldelli’s attempts to change the outcome, the Phillies would respond in the next half inning, and close out their World Series victory 4 games to 1.

The Sox, recognizing Baldelli’s need for rest during the season, brought him into the fold to serve in a backup outfielder role. Perhaps to spell J.D. Drew in right a few times a week. With Drew and Baldelli’s postseason heroics in the past, the Sox may have the most clutch right field combo in baseball.

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