How Rays made ‘next man up’ add up to 99 wins and a playoff berth

ST. PETERSBURG — Well before they reported to their makeshift home at the Disney complex to open spring training, the Rays fully expected to be playing in the postseason for a franchise-record fifth straight year.

But they had no idea how different they would look.

A litany of assorted injuries and Wander Franco’s legal issues mandated an extensive and ongoing remaking of the roster that tested the depth of available talent, forcing them to go outside to fill some spots and promoting their young players, some ahead of schedule, for others.

The 26-man roster for the best-of-three Wild Card Series against Texas that starts Tuesday afternoon at Tropicana Field could include as many as 12 players who were not with the Rays at the start of the season.

“It was next man up all year long,” said outfielder Josh Lowe.

That much makeover not only changed their plans on the field but also challenged the resolve of the staff — especially after a record-tying 13-0, season-opening run and 29-7 start — to not dwell on what might have been.

“Yeah, I mean, you can think about it,” manager Kevin Cash said. “And I do think about it.

“But I try to remind myself you’re probably wasting thoughts, because this is a group that is capable of doing some special things.”

Which, somehow, the remade Rays did, winning 99 games, fourth-most in the majors, and earning the top American League wild card despite a list of missing players that could make the core of a pretty good squad.

Starters, including two-time All-Star Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen. Relievers Jason Adam and Garrett Cleavinger. All-Star infielders Brandon Lowe and Franco. And, pending final decisions Tuesday morning about their recovery from recent injuries, potentially outfielders Luke Raley and Jose Siri.

With each blow, the Rays became inured to the pain.

“The jabs, the true punches, we took it,” hitting coach Chad Mottola said. “For two days, you want to pout. We knew we had the best team on paper, and we were playing like we were the best team. And then I think we got so much that happened to us that we built up a tolerance, and a credit to these guys that stepped up and we feel very comfortable.

“It’d be easy to look back and see all that we’ve lost. And I think other people can do that. But I don’t think the group we have has any doubt or any type of reason to think they can’t perform the way those guys were performing.”

The list of young players who were called up and contributed — some, general manager Peter Bendix said, with “their timelines expedited out of need” — includes pitcher Taj Bradley; infielders Jonathan Aranda, Osleivis Basabe, Junior Caminero and Curtis Mead; and catcher Rene Pinto.

Brandon Lowe, sidelined Sept. 21 when he fouled off a pitch that fractured his right kneecap, said they deserve to be applauded.

“I don’t think it’s fair to look at what could have been. I think we kind of saw with the 13-0 start when we had everybody what could have been and how it was going and how we were going to be,” he said.

“But where we are at this point and how we weathered all the storms and the different hiccups in the season that we’ve had, I think you have to give all the credit in the world to all the guys that have come up and stepped up in those situations.”

But he also said the core position players who stayed on the field — such as Randy Arozarena, Yandy Diaz, Josh Lowe, Isaac Paredes and Harold Ramirez — did an impressive job of keeping the team on track.

“When a guy gets injured, that guy gets punched in the face a little bit, but so does everybody else around them,” Brandon Lowe said. “And for those guys to get hit multiple times and just bounce back and keep playing their baseball, keep playing great baseball and doing things the right way, it’s a testament to the guys that we have here. And not just how great a ballplayer they are, but how great of people they are, too.”

Besides Bradley, the pitching staff makeover involved more experienced additions, as the team acquired Aaron Civale, Jake Diekman, Zack Littell (who transitioned from reliever to starter) and Robert Stephenson, and activated Shawn Armstrong and Andrew Kittredge after extensive injured-list stints.

“You don’t always arrive the same way, right?” pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “Wins comes in all shapes and sizes. But at the end of the day, our job is to suppress as many runs as we can each day. It’s been a different group, and we’ve been tested in different ways. In a lot of ways, it’s probably the proudest Kevin and I have been in terms of what they’ve achieved, given the adversity.”

Ultimately, the Rays’ ability to handle that adversity was a team effort that started at the top.

“It speaks to our front office group just being really, really well prepared, over-prepared, because the way it’s shaken out this year nobody could have forecasted that,” Cash said. “But we were able to cover it well enough to where we ended up with 99 wins. That’s pretty awesome.”

• • •

Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.

Never miss out on the latest with your favorite Tampa Bay sports teams. Follow our coverage on Twitter and Facebook.