TORONTO — On Friday in Toronto, the Tampa Bay Rays had a chance to write history, as a win would give them a 14-0 record to start the season — making them the first team to do so in well over a century.
They didn’t, falling 6-3 to the Blue Jays. They of course remain a very talented team — but one that will have to be remembered for whatever else it does this season, not simply how the season started.
Which is all well and good by Rays manager Kevin Cash. Don’t get it wrong: He is thrilled that the team is winning. The second-longest tenured manager in baseball has been at the helm of the small-but-mighty club since 2014 and can appreciate a marginal advantage when he sees one. An early lead in a difficult division, 13 wins banked before mid-April — there’s real value in that.
The winning Cash likes; the questions about his team writing history with its streak to begin the season he could do without.
“I don’t know who the Maroons are,” he quipped before the game Friday.
Very few people alive today did — until the Rays opened the 2023 season on a roll, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in 139 years, since the St. Louis Maroons went 20-0 to start the 1884 season. And considering that we’re all just learning about the Maroons now, here’s something you probably didn’t realize: Their records are basically bogus. The Maroons were managed by the commissioner of the extremely short-lived Union Association League (literally, it folded after that single season), and the team pilfered all the best players from the competition before cruising to a 94-19 record. So that doesn’t even really count.
“We should try that next year,” Cash said postgame, after being informed of the Maroons' season-long success.
Besides, 13-1 is not nothing. The 2023 Rays will settle for having tied the 1987 Brewers and 1982 Braves for the longest win streak to start a season in the Modern Era (since 1900).
“Teams that have been buried in history are being brought back up,” Josh Lowe said pregame about the position the Rays had played themselves into. “Like, we're gonna be right there with those guys. We'll live forever in those record books.”
Somewhere, the 1884 St. Louis Maroons are popping a bottle of champagne. pic.twitter.com/2lBn308Uj0
— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) April 15, 2023
The loss Friday severed a streak that had created a compelling on-field narrative in the first few weeks of the season and stood as an undeniable testament to a talented team that has long flown under the radar. Going into the game, the Rays had trailed at the end of just six of the 117 innings they had played this year and had outscored their opponents 101-30. On Friday against the Blue Jays, they never mustered a lead.
In heading north of the border in search of their 14th win, the Rays faced a worthy competitor. Or something like that. Much has been made about how they started the year against predictably weak teams, including the Oakland A’s and Washington Nationals — which they did, and it didn’t hurt, but there have been easy schedules in the past century yet very few 13-0 streaks to start a season.
Still, right away Friday, the Blue Jays lent some credence to the strength-of-schedule caveat. After the Rays were retired in order in the first, George Springer hit a leadoff home run for the Jays — snapping Tampa Bay starter Drew Rasmussen’s scoreless streak to start the season — and a few batters later, the bases were loaded with one out. The Rays largely escaped that jam but gave up another run in the second. They got one back before the game unraveled in the fifth — a couple of singles, three walks and the second error of the night for a Rays team that had committed only four errors in its first 13 games. It was a 6-1 Toronto lead after five.
“If this was a perfect world, you'd never make an error. You’d never lose a game,” Brandon Lowe said postgame after his error at second allowed the Jays to pile on. “It's not like that. You're gonna make errors throughout the year, you're gonna struggle on the mound with control. It’s stuff that happens. I'm sure [Rasmussen] will tell you that that's not going to happen again, and I believe he’ll do everything in his power to do it. I'll tell you that I'll never make an error again, but it's probably going to happen. It sucks it happened in the midst of everything that's going on.”
Even in disappointment, the Rays were adamant that they could appreciate what they accomplished prior to Friday.
“Everyone knew that 162-0 was probably out of the question,” Lowe conceded.
But that’s the danger of playing at an unsustainable pace: The crash has to come eventually. And while the wins provide a cushion in the standings, they can’t take the sting away.
“Losing always sucks,” Lowe said. “There's no loss that feels any worse or better than any other ones.”