Reporting David Elfin
Tampa Bay, which is in the midst of a three-game series at Nats Park, didn’t have a major league baseball team until 1998. During their first decade, the Devil Rays, as they were then known, finished out of the American League East cellar only once. That happened in 2004 when they finished fourth with a then-franchise record 70 victories.
However, four years later, everything changed, beginning with the shortening of the team’s name to the Rays. Tampa Bay rocketed from 66 victories in 2007 to 97 in 2008 and won the AL East and then the AL pennant before losing the World Series to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Tampa Bay was third in the AL East in 2009, won a second division title in 2010, finished second last year while making the playoffs as a wild card and is third now with a fine 38-29 record after edging Washington 5-4 last night.
Joe Maddon, the wry, bespectacled manager who led the Rays out of irrelevance in his third season back in 2008, is still in command in their dugout. First baseman Carlos Pena, third baseman Evan Longoria and center fielder B.J. Upton, mainstays of Tampa’s first playoff team, remain in place as do top starting pitchers James Shields and David Price as well as reliever J.P. Howell and currently injured spot starter Jeff Niemann. Ben Zobrist and Elliot Johnson have moved from the bench to right field and shortstop, respectively, on Maddon’s regular lineup card.
Of those nine veterans from the 2008 team, only Pena wasn’t drafted by Tampa Bay and he and Zobrist, 31, are the only ones over 30 now in the Rays’ fifth season as contenders.
Starting pitchers Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore have also spent their entire pro careers with the Rays as have spot starter Alex Cobb, relievers Wade Davis and Jake McGee and reserve outfielder Desmond Jennings.
Washington, which has surprisingly led the National League East for most of the year despite never finishing above .500 during its previous seven seasons, can dream about becoming the kind of haughty franchise that can compete with the likes of the wealthy New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers for all the elite and expensive free agents.
However, the Rays provide a much better and more realistic model for the Nats, whose success this season under manager Davey Johnson – a proven winner who’s in his first full year in Washington — has been built on such homegrown talent as starting pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, shortstop Ian Desmond, second baseman Danny Espinosa, outfielders Bryce Harper and Steve Lombardozzi and catcher Jesus Flores.
Reserve outfielders Roger Bernandina and Tyler Moore, relievers Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen, backup catcher Jhonatan Solano and currently injured closer Drew Storen haven’t been with any other organization, either.
Bernandina and Stammen, both 28, are the relative graybeards of that group of 14 players. That youth is reflected throughout the entire 40-man roster which includes just 10 players over 30.
In other words, like the Rays who haven’t looked back once they finally blossomed after a decade in the doldrums, the Nats are built for the long haul.
Whether Washington holds on to win the NL East for the nation’s capital’s first baseball championship of any kind in 79 years remains a question mark, but there should be no question that the Nats, as the Rays have been, are going to be legitimate contenders for years to come.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin