Prior to 2008
The then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays had created a miserable culture where 65-win seasons and last-place finishes were the norm. In its first 10 years of existence, this expansion franchise was never even in position to contend by midseason.
Due to financial restrictions, Tampa Bay could never obtain elite free-agent hitters or reliable veteran pitchers. The club just asked manager Joe Maddon to get the most out of cheap, homegrown players and undesirable has-beens.
The Devil Rays changed to the Rays following a run-of-the-mill 66-96 record in 2007. Despite strong performances from Carl Crawford, Scott Kazmir, Carlos Pena, James Shields and B.J. Upton, Maddon received useless contributions from his bench and bullpen.
Tampa Bay began 8-11, then won an MLB-best 47 out of 68 between April 22 and July 6. The team endured particularly rough weeks prior to the All-Star break and in early September, but it remained nationally relevant throughout the summer.
Subtle additions like Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Eric Hinske and Troy Percival made meaningful impacts.
The key to 2008 success, however, was dramatic improvement from pitchers who embarrassed the Rays the previous year. In terms of earned run average, starter Edwin Jackson progressed from 5.76 to 4.42. Similarly, bullpen pieces Grant Balfour (6.14 to 1.54), J.P. Howell (7.59 to 2.22) and Dan Wheeler (5.76 to 3.12) thrived and pitched more often.
Pena and Upton actually regressed at ages 30 and 23, respectively, but they continued to play great defense.
Fielding aptitude propped Tampa Bay above the traditional AL East powerhouses—the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees—as the Rays clinched the division title with 98 wins.
Defeated Chicago White Sox in ALDS, 3-1.
Defeated Boston Red Sox in ALCS, 4-3.
Defeated by Philadelphia Phillies in World Series, 4-1.