The Rays’ Five Most Memorable Games

Number 1October 19, 2008: Unbelievable

Before the 2008 season, the Rays were a 10-year-old major league joke who never won more than 70 games and were as much as 150-1 longshots to win an American League pennant. Six months later, the stunningly surprising Rays were on the precipice of achieving the impossible and making a few certifiable folks in Vegas certifiably rich. But the doubters were out after the Rays, up three games to one against Boston in the ALCS, lost the next two—including a Game Five defeat in which they once led by seven runs—to set up the decisive Game Seven at Tropicana Field.

Matt Garza got the start for Tampa Bay but the Red Sox immediately hit him up for a run in the first when AL MVP Dustin Pedroia hit a solo shot, sending the typically healthy throng of Red Sox fans in St. Petersburg cheering to their feet. Boston starting pitcher Jon Lester retired the Tampa Bay lineup the first time through the order, but wasn’t so lucky the second time around; the Rays tied it in the fourth on an Evan Longoria double that brought home Akinori Iwamura, then took the lead an inning later when Rocco Baldelli—once a rising star before being struck by a rare condition that crippled his stamina—singled in Willie Aybar. In the seventh, Aybar added insurance with a leadoff homer that made the score 3-1.

In the Boston eighth, the Red Sox finally threatened. Garza’s exemplary evening ended when Alex Cora reached on an error; two Tampa Bay relievers then allowed the Red Sox to load the bases with two outs. In came David Price, the highly prized rookie who began the year in Class A ball and, now, was in the center of the Rays’ fight to win a major league pennant. He got Job One done by striking out J.D. Drew to finish the eighth; he took care of Job Two when he clamped down on the Red Sox in the ninth, surviving a leadoff walk to Jason Bay. When Iwamura took Jed Lowrie’s grounder unassisted to second to force Bay for the final out, the Rays completed one of baseball’s most improbable worst-to-first success stories.

Number 2September 28, 2011: David Slays Goliath, Again

Less than four weeks before finishing their regular season at home against divisional rival New York, the Rays were nine full games back of the Red Sox, who looked to be sitting pretty for the AL wild card spot. Few thought much of a comeback by a Tampa Bay team who’d admirably made it this far on a skimpy budget and rebuilt bullpen. But when Boston proceeded to lose 15 of its next 20 games—including five of six to the Rays—it suddenly became a race to the wire, with both teams tied for the wild card going into the season’s final day.

The Yankees, with the AL East title already clinched, started many of their regular players but planned to pull most of them midway through. That decision was made easier when they tore out to a 7-0 lead off Tampa Bay starter David Price and company through five innings. One Yankee reliever after another—Dellin Betances, making only his second major league appearance, started and lasted two innings—kept the Rays’ bats silent through seven innings, and defeat looked inevitable for Tampa Bay, as a steady stream of fans amid the 29,000 in attendance gradually began leaving the park, with some shouting out in disgust, “Rays suck!”

In the eighth, the Rays showed signs of life, thanks in part to Yankee pitching—which hit two batters and walked another as the first five Tampa hitters reached base. With two runs in, two runners on and two outs, Evan Longoria came up and hit a three-run shot that, suddenly, brought the Rays to within a run. An inning later, with Yankee reliever Cory Wade trying to earn the save because Mariano Rivera was given the night off, benchwarmer and .108 hitter Dan Johnson came up as the last hope for the Rays—and gave new hope by homering to send the game into extra innings.

The game remained tied into the 12th, when the Yankees placed runners at first and third with nobody out—but failed to score. In between innings, even better news came from Baltimore: The Red Sox lost, blowing their one-run lead in the ninth. That left it all up to the Rays; with one out in the bottom of the 12th, Longoria sent a shot down the left-field line that barely cleared the fence fair alongside the pole, electrifying those remaining at the Tropicana Field and sending the Rays out of the dugout in euphoric celebration, improbably riding their way to their third playoff appearance in four years.

Number 3

October 24, 2020: Oh Yes! Oh No! Oh Yes!

Playing in their second World Series—and trying to stay alive to win it for the first time, ever—the Rays victoriously capped a spirited contest with, arguably, the wildest finish in any postseason game.

For the first eight and a half innings of Game Four at neutral-site Arlington, Texas, an energetic matchup between the Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers already had the makings of a Fall Classic classic. Six home runs were belted, and the two teams continuously exchanged the lead with one another in the late innings that kept the pandemic-downsized crowd of 11,000 and millions watching on TV glued to the action. But all that was prologue to what was to come in the bottom of the ninth.

Down a run and facing off against veteran Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen, the Rays made their move. Kevin Kiermeier stroked a one-out single to center. After Joey Wendle lined out, bust-out postseason star Randy Arozarena forged a walk out of Jansen, keeping the game alive for Tampa Bay’s last available position player: Benchwarmer Brett Phillips, a career .202 hitter who made the Rays’ postseason roster exclusively for defensive purposes.

Behind in the count 1-2, Phillips next knocked out a soft liner to right-center that fell in front of center fielder Chris Taylor. As Kiermeier raced home to notch the tying run, the ball deflected off of Taylor’s glove—giving Arozarena the green light in an attempt to score the game-winner behind Kiermeier. As Taylor’s throw sailed astray toward unexpected cut-off man Max Muncy near first base, Arozarena suddenly stumbled and fell to the ground two-thirds of the way home. Muncy zipped a throw to the plate—but the ball glanced off of catcher Will Smith’s glove toward the backstop. Thought to be a dead duck, Arozarena jumped up and triumphantly slid head-first at home plate to give the Rays an 8-7 victory and a 2-2 game split in the series—which, alas for the Rays, would be taken by the Dodgers in six.

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Number 4

August 29, 2008: .500 For Keeps

The goal for the Rays entering the 2008 campaign was to achieve something they never had accomplished in 10 years of existence: A winning record. With over a month to spare in the season, they finally had the chance to punch through this psychological barrier towards bigger and better things—and did so with hammer-like force.

The Rays scored once in the first, two in the second—then delivered the early knockout blow in the fourth by tallying seven runs, highlighted by a Ben Zobrist grand slam and heated exchanges between Orioles players and home plate umpire Sam Holbrook over balls and strikes that resulted in the ejection of catcher Ramon Hernandez. The 10-0 lead, extended to 13-0 two innings later, had the crowd of 21,000 at Tropicana Field rocking in an environment Zobrist later described as contagious.

When it was over, the Rays prevailed 14-3 to secure their first above-.500 campaign; it was also their 50th home win of the year (against just 19 losses) and Tampa Bay starter Scott Kazmir, by working five-plus innings of shutout baseball, became the fifth starter on the staff with at least 10 wins for the season—a noble achievement given that the Rays had averaged just one 10-game winner a year during their first decade of lackluster baseball.

Number 5

September 28, 2010: They Won a Division and Nobody Came

The Rays were showing that their 2008 AL pennant-winning campaign was no fluke. They finished above .500 in 2009, then rose above the high-priced Yankees and Red Sox again in 2010 as they jousted for a second AL East title in three years. Despite the nonstop Cinderella performances, the fans yawned. With a chance to clinch a playoff spot on a Monday night at home against Baltimore (the Rays lost, 4-0), only 12,446 showed up—and some of the young Rays stars just couldn’t believe it. Evan Longoria ranted that he was confused and disheartened by the low attendance figures, while pitcher David Price used social media to confess that the small crowds at St. Petersburg were “embarrassing.”

The Rays’ second shot in as many days to grab a playoff spot was overshadowed for much of the day by reaction to the players’ comments. Price, ready to take the mound against the Orioles, claimed he was living a “nightmare” before game time, worried that a bad performance would have him run out of town by angry fans. And if his comments, along with those of Longoria and B.J. Upton, served as a dare to fans to show up, the challenge wasn’t totally met. A slightly larger crowd of 17,000 was on hand as Price pitched his heart out—throwing eight shutout innings with eight strikeouts and no walks—and was well supported early on by Tampa Bay bats, who continuously nibbled away at Baltimore starter Brad Bergesen to take a 5-0 lead after five innings—a score that would hold to the finish, securing the Rays’ second October appearance in three years.

As an olive branch to the controversy created by the players’ critical comments, the Tampa Bay front office announced that 20,000 free tickets would be available for the next game. The gesture helped sell out Tropicana Field.

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