When the Rays were trying to claw back into the race, Tommy made a joke about bringing TPR back if they made the postseason. It was a joke in the “when pigs fly” sense, but after last night, how could we not? You have to cherish any postseason opportunity your favorite team gets, so from now until the season ends, we’re back—just consider TPR a backronym for The Playoff Run.
There is something just so right about Evan Longoria and Dan Johnson taking turns playing hero as the Rays teetered between playoff elimination and berth. The contrast is beautiful and writes itself. Longoria is a golden child, Johnson a non-entity. Longoria is the guy you want up with the game—the season—on the line, but Johnson is the guy who seems to be thrust into these situations whenever the Rays are destined to make the playoffs. You can go on and on and on. You can call this the Extra Two Percent—the perfect example of how the Rays operate in order to win an unfair game—and nobody would fight you. You can also say that sometimes, the best times, baseball is sweet.
Adam Sobsey scorched the Johnson earth with his stellar piece, but Johnson’s story is worth rehashing. Everyone knows about the clutch home runs and about the dismal play earlier in 2011, but keep in mind: the Rays have placed him on waivers four times throughout his career. Tampa Bay claimed him after Oakland designated him for assignment in 2008, and the very next day—after Johnson spent the night in Orlando with the rest of the club—they then designated him for assignment. After the season, he had to pass through waivers in order to sign with a Japanese team. He returned stateside in 2010 with a major league contract and again was passed through waivers in order to hit the minor leagues. Then earlier this season, after struggling, the Rays again went through the waiver process with Johnson.
Four times any other team in baseball could have claimed Johnson and none did. It’s not because he is an utterly undesirable ballplayer—entering this season his career OPS+ was 103, which isn’t great from a first baseman, but you can do far worse—but for whatever reasons teams decided they weren’t going to claim him. This season, it was in part because of his failures and his $1 million salary. In fact, that salary may have saved the Rays from losing Johnson in another way too, as he could have opted for free agency and found another organization, one willing to give him a longer leash, but in doing so would have forgone the remainder of that million bucks—an impossible sum for a fringe player.
One of those sins of following a team like the Rays is falling victim to appealing to authority on every move, but gosh they’re good. The guy Johnson hit the home run off, Cory Wade, is a fellow I liked when the Rays signed him this offseason. He opted out and they didn’t stop him despite having a human mothball in the bullpen at the time. Wade went on to throw 39 2/3 innings pitched for the Yankees with a 2.04 earned run average, but he also served up a season-saving home run, so that decision looks considerably more tolerable now. Signing Casey Kotchman and giving him the first base job a month into the season was a decision I strongly disliked—and I had history on my side here—so naturally Kotchman led the Rays in infield hits and finished with the 12th-best Wins Above Replacement Player amongst first basemen. The Rays signed Manny Ramirez, who then retired, and replaced him in the lineup with Sam Fuld instead of Desmond Jennings. Of course, Fuld then became a bugbear and a legend with his play over the next few weeks.
And so on and so forth. The point is: The Rays are not infallible. They’ve made mistakes, but somehow, someway, they seem to come out ahead when it appears they messed up. Is it luck? Yeah, probably, but Andrew Friedman might have made a deal with the devil and ripped him off in the process too. How else can you explain the Royals and Rockies both passing on the best college hitter in the 2006 draft for a pair of pitchers who were not necessarily considered the best college arms. The Rays were so resigned to the idea that Longoria would become a member of the Rockies that they had a pre-draft deal in place with Tim Lincecum instead.
Divine intervention makes for a nice reasoning on how the Rays were able to sign Longoria to what became one of the best contracts in baseball, but had the potential to blow up in their faces given how little time Longoria had seen in the majors. How else do you explain how Longoria has changed the fate of the franchise during his four major league seasons? This is the Longoria who, while being driven to the stadium to sign his first professional contract in 2006, nearly caused a staffer wreck his car by asking him when the Rays had last made the postseason. He was ignorant of the Rays history then, and now he is the Rays history.
When people remember this season, they should remember Longoria because his 2011 is the classic redemption tale that people love. People forget, but Longoria’s 2011 season began with controversy after his spring training apartment was robbed and a gun was found. He then exited the second game of the season with a sprained oblique and missed the rest of April. Yet, he came back and hit 31 home runs. Ever a protean actor, he showed off his defensive ability over and over again, building a highlight reel from September plays alone. The diving grab that he turned into a double play by landing with his glove on the third base bag in Boston, the triple play he started against New York due to his cocksure attitude when it comes to throwing to second, the diving stop last night, and so on.
I was reminded once more of what James Shields said last year after the Rays fell behind 2-0 in the Divisional Series, “We got to fight our way back. We’ve been fighters ever since ’08 when we started turning this organization around so it’s time to go.” The scrub and the star fought back. They don’t build statues for Dan Johnsons, they build plaques for Evan Longorias. Last night, though, those two built a moment that will live with us forever.
Here’s to 11 more moments in 2011.