Rays fall short in 2017 despite improvements

Rays fall short in 2017 despite improvements

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays were contenders for most of the 2017 season. Unfortunately, the ending didn't match the midseason optimism created by this year's squad.

Finding themselves at seven games above .500 (51-44) and two games out of first place in the American League East on July 18, the Rays had reason to believe they could reach the postseason if they continued their steady ascent.

Pitching at top of mind for Rays this offseason

Then they dropped five in a row. And despite management's decision to make some moves to bolster the team, the team never got back in stride. But Tampa Bay had some good moments, showed improvement from 2016, and the impressions those moments made allows for optimism going forward.

1. Dickerson the All-Star

Corey Dickerson got off to a red-hot start, finding himself hitting .347 on May 21. The free-swinging slugger largely fueled the Rays' offense in the first half, earning his first selection to the All-Star Game.

Dickerson's four-hit performance

Dickerson earned his selection in an exciting vote that went down to the end before the fans voted him onto the team. He went to the game in Miami hitting .312 with 17 home runs and 42 RBIs.

He wasn't able to keep up his torrid pace in the second half, but who knows where the Rays might have been had he not paced the offense early.

2. Kiermaier returns

Standout center fielder Kevin Kiermaier suffered a right hip fracture on June 18. He did not return until Aug. 18, but when he did, Kiermaier reminded everyone what the Rays were missing in his absence.

Not only did Kiermaier stand out in the field, he also showed the best offense of his career.

Personifying Kiermaier's work was the Rays' game against the Red Sox on Sept. 15. He did everything in his power to try and help the Rays win, including a jaw-dropping catch in the top of the ninth and a game-tying home run in the 14th. The Red Sox still came away winners in a 6-hour 5-minute, 15-inning game at Tropicana Field.

Must C: Kiermaier shows off

3. Colome nasty

Alex Colome anchored the back of the Rays' bullpen in his second year as the team's closer. And what a year it was. He set a personal high for saves while giving the Rays security with a late lead.

Colome's cutter continued to be his biggest weapon. The pitch ranks as one of the most dominating pitches in the Major Leagues.

Colome named top AL reliever

"It's great," catcher Jesus Sucre said. "Everytime he goes out there and pounds the zone, the hitters don't have much of a chance because his cutter's nasty. He's one of the best. That's why he's got all those saves."

4. A shortstop arrives

The Rays got busy in advance of the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline when they acquired shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria from the Marlins in a June 26 trade.

Hechavarria brought sure hands, a strong arm and considerable range to the position. He also brought a bat, like when he smacked a two-run double against the Cardinals that led a 7-3 Rays win in St. Louis on Aug. 25.

Hechavarria's two-run double

In addition, Hechavarria established a career high in home runs after arriving to the Rays with just one.

"Defense is my speciality and I take pride in that, but I have really started to focus a lot more on my offense and thank God that it has shown well since I've been working on it," Hechavarria said.

5. Longo goes for the cycle

Evan Longoria became the second player in Rays history to hit for the cycle when he did so in a 6-4 win at Houston on Aug. 1 by stretching a single into a double in his final at-bat.

Longoria's cycle vs. the Astros

Initially, Longoria was called out. But after a crew chief review, the call was overturned. Longoria joined Melvin Upton Jr. as the only Rays players who have accomplished the rare baseball feat. Upton did so against the Yankees on Oct. 2, 2009.

"[Cycles] obviously don't come very often, so I was definitely thinking about it," Longoria said following the game. "I felt good at the plate from the beginning tonight. But it's tough when you're thinking about it. I probably would have been a little bit more confident or comfortable if I only needed a single. But it was kind of surreal."

Bill Chastain has covered the Rays for MLB.com since 2004. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.