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Rays showed heart while fighting to the very end

Rays showed heart while fighting to the very end

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Rays showed heart while fighting to the very end
ST. PETERSBURG -- On paper, the 2012 Rays looked like the best in club history.

The team had maintained its strengths and addressed its weaknesses in the offseason to the point where many even felt the Rays were the best team in baseball.

Alas, paper is sometimes just something to write on. Once the games were played and the kind of team the Rays had began to unfold, the facts that came to light were these: The Rays' pitching, on paper, resembled something a championship club could point to for why it had won a pennant. Few teams in baseball history have dominated hitters the way Rays pitchers did this season.

And the Rays' offense ...

Well, on paper, the Rays' offense looked more like something a 100-loss club might put together.

Nevertheless, the Rays never quit, tirelessly fighting to stay in the hunt and putting on display the kind of heart that wins championships. In the end that wasn't enough, but again, what heart this gritty bunch showed -- particularly down the backstretch.

The end came Monday night. Hours after the Rays had defeated the Orioles, 5-3, at Tropicana Field, the Athletics defeated the Rangers to clinch the second American League Wild Card spot, eliminating Tampa Bay from postseason contention.

So despite the fact that the Rays have won 11 of their last 12 games -- and they could very well win 13 of their final 14 games this season -- there will be no playoff baseball inside Tropicana Field this October.

Nobody in the Rays' organization has ever pretended that they were anything other than a team built around pitching and defense. Yet, during the first half of the season, the defense deserted the club while the pitching continued to carry the load.

Starters David Price and James Shields provided a one-two punch capable of matching up with the front end of any team's rotation.

Shields endured a period of inconsistency before coming on strong the final two months of the season, while Price maintained his consistency throughout the season. That consistency, plus his dominance of opposing hitters, has put him in the conversation to become this season's American League Cy Young Award winner.

Complementing the Rays' top two starters were Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Jeff Niemann and Chris Archer, which, in essence, translated to one of the deepest staffs in baseball.

Meanwhile, the Rays' bullpen was arguably the best in team history, with Fernando Rodney putting forth one of the top seasons by a closer in the history of the game. Joel Peralta did a fine job setting up Rodney, and the bullpen boasted of other power arms such as the left-right combination of Jake McGee and Wade Davis, and a lot of finesse with J.P. Howell and Burke Badenhop.

The Rays' defense rebounded in the second half, but the team's offense ran hot and cold, which could be attributed in large part to the team playing three months without its top offensive threat, Evan Longoria. Such fluctuations were not supposed to be part of the equation following the offseason acquisitions of Carlos Pena, Luke Scott and Jeff Keppinger.

Pena struggled offensively all season, in large part due to his inability to adjust to the defensive shift played against him. And Scott had periods when he hit the ball well, but he spent prolonged periods on the disabled list. Pena and Scott's lack of production equated to an AL team playing without the huge boost to the offense associated with the first-base and DH positions.

Keppinger, who was signed to be a spare part for the offense, turned out to be one of the team's foremost offensive weapons.

B.J. Upton also provided a spark for the offense, particularly in September, when he clubbed 12 home runs, including a three-home run game against the Rangers on Sept. 9.

Unfortunately for the Rays, what they did in the end could not overcome some of their problems earlier in the season. But once again, the team gave Rays fans a season to remember.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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