Thursday, 4 a.m.
“We're going to win Sunday. I guarantee it.
– Joe Namath
“We're going to go in there and win game six.”
– Mark Messier
“Fo, fo, fo.”
– Moses Malone
“We will not finish last this year.”
– Lou Piniella
Okay, okay. As guarantees go, Lou wasn't exactly promising the moon. He just stepped out onto a thick limb and said his team wasn't going to finish last. So what if they had never managed that. It was spring, and Lou was a confident cat, and the words just kind of spilled out of him.
And all heck broke loose.
Speaking for the writers, we ate it up. Lou didn't say his team was going to beat the Yankees. He didn't say it was going to make the post-season. He didn't even say that people notice poor little Tampa Bay.
He just said someone, finally, was going to be worse than the Devil Rays.
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And so the writers gathered in the old Ray Naimoli complex in St. Petersburg, and we got ready to get Lou to embellish on what he had said. Lou was always good for a quote, after all. And sometimes, it came with a chuckle. Heck, no one really believed Lou, anyway. The Rays lived in the cellar. Last place was their birthright.
Lou had been speaking at a luncheon when he guaranteed Tampa Bay wouldn't finish last. The next day, he said he thought the team could play .500 baseball. "If we had a couple of more luncheons," he later said, "we'd be going to the World Series."
No, Lou wasn't willing to wager. He believed in his team. He was optimistic ... to a point. No one blamed Lou.
But suddenly, general manager Chuck LaMar was gathering all of the writers together. He had a serious look on his face, as he often did. Chuck led the world in "yes, sir," "no, sir" and serious looks.
"Look, guys," LaMar said. "Let's not make too much out of this prediction, okay. I don't want people to take this seriously."
What? Huh? A Rays manager finally had the audacity to say that his team could finish next-to-last, and the general manager doesn't want anyone to imagine the view. Who else tries to talk a manager out of prediction for fourth place?
Well, guess what? The Rays that year finished fourth in the AL East, ahead of Toronto. They won a franchise-record 70 games. If they hadn't had a 32-54 stretch run, heck, they might have finished third. As it was, fourth was high-flying for the franchise, which had lost 99 times the year before.
So here we are again.
The Rays are in last place. Again. They are looking up at four teams. Again. Someone has to say it. Again.
The Rays aren't going to finish in last place this year, either.
This year, the Rays will be only the second ugliest girl in school. They'll be the next-to-last weakest kid in math class. They'll beat some other clunker in the car race.
Again, no one is predicting a worst-to-first finish. There is too much talent and too much wealth spread across the division. But this year, the Rays will beat somebody. The Yankees? The Orioles? Somebody. Anybody.
Okay, okay. It would take a lot of lifting to get by the Red Sox, who can throw Rick Porcello, David Price and Chris Sale at another team. And the Blue Jays are good A lot of people think they're they chief challengers to the Red Sox. But New York and Baltimore aren't great, either.
That means if the Rays get enough pitching -- always the goal -- then Tampa Bay can slip into next to last. Yay.
Hey, after three straight losing seasons, that would be a start, right?
How do the Rays do it? Let's start with the hope that Chris Archer finally grows up. He has good stuff, but there are too many times he tries to get cute, as if the point was to fool hitters more than get them out. He earned his way to 19 losses last year.
How good can Alex Cobb be this year? Some pitchers struggle for a while after rotator cuff surgery. Jake Odorizzi pitched better than his 10-6 record. Blake Snell has enough stuff to get double-digit wins.
There are also questions about the hitting. Can Brad Miller get anywhere close to the 30 home runs of a year ago. Can Evan Longoria coax another excellent year out of his body? Can Matt Duffy stay healthy? Can Steven Souza cut down on his strikeouts? How soon before Wilson Ramos can catch again?
The Rays seem to be in good shape to steal some runs in the outfield with Kevin Kiermaier, Souza and Colby Rasmus. Still, there are a lot of ifs at the plate. The Rays have five players who had at least 121 strikeouts last year (They'll have five this year, too, with Rasmus instead of Logan Forsythe). That's too many.
Still, it's an intriguing lineup if it can stay healthy, and if Miller can have a Forsythe-like season at second.
No, I wouldn't predict the playoffs. I don't think the Rays are going to shock the world.
But they'll beat out somebody.
Just ask Lou.