Whenever the 2004 Devil Rays’ franchise-best 12-game winning streak is matched or surpassed, it will be remembered by the context.
Because back in those days, the Devil Rays just didn’t win very often.
In the first six seasons from their 1998 debut, the Rays averaged 63½ victories and won no more than 69 in any one year. Their longest winning streak was six.
There was no good reason, or any reason, to think Lou Piniella’s 2004 squad would be any better — especially when it had to trek to and from St. Petersburg to Japan to open the season against the Yankees and got off to a majors-worst 10-28 start in mid-May.
Not much changed over the next couple of weeks. Well, except that on June 7, the Lightning won their first Stanley Cup. On June 8, Barry Bonds played in and former commissioner Bud Selig attended their first games at Tropicana Field.
And on June 9, the Rays’ franchise-best winning streak was launched.
It didn’t look like the start of something, as the Rays scored three times in the eighth to go up 3-1 on the Giants, only to blow the lead in the ninth. But something was different as they rallied, walking three times in the 10th to load the bases, then getting a two-out walkoff single by Jose Cruz Jr. to win 4-3.
They wouldn’t lose again for nearly two weeks, traveling cross country and north of the border before their streak ended with a walkoff loss in Toronto.
“It just seemed like everything was going our way during that stretch,’’ said current Rays TV analyst Doug Waechter, a pitcher on the 2004 team. “We got the big hit when needed, pitching was on point. Everyone was just locked in.
“Players were arriving early and staying late. It was the first time we really felt like we could compete with anyone, and when you have that feeling as a team you are dangerous.”
The Rays won games against the Giants, Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks and Blue Jays before their streak ended. “It was a fun time in our careers,” said catcher Toby Hall said. “We had a good group of guys.”
The streak ended with a 2-1 loss to the Blue Jays on June 23. The Rays won the next day, then came home to a crowd at the airport and a Welcome Home Rally staged by the mayor of St. Petersburg.
“I remember arriving at Tampa airport to a large group of fans cheering us on,” Waechter said. “That was the first time that happened for us. It helped us realize something special was going on.”
Here are some highlights, though none in Piniella’s hair, which he had died blond the previous season when the Rays won three in a row:
They made it exciting
Three of the wins were walkoffs — Cruz’s single on June 9, Rey Sanchez’s inside-the-park homer against the Rockies June 11, Julio Lugo’s single on June 13. Six others were by three runs or less. Among the memorable moments: beating Arizona ace Randy Johnson and seeing Fred McGriff hit his 493rd and final home run.
No, pigs didn’t fly and hell didn’t freeze over. But the earth did move, and the ground shook, after the Rays won the first five. They were greeted in San Diego June 15 by a 5.2-magnitude earthquake that hit Petco Park before batting practice but went on to win 5-2.
The 2004 Devil Rays roster was an interesting mix. There were some of their homegrown rising key players such as Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, Aubrey Huff and Hall. There were some big-name veterans, including Tino Martinez, Sanchez, McGriff and Cruz. And an interesting spare part, a rookie outfielder/third baseman picked up on waivers from the Orioles a week before the streak started, then traded to the Royals for cash a couple days after it ended, whom you may have heard of when he became a bit more established in Toronto: Jose Bautista.
What goes up …
A couple months after winning 12 in a row, the Devil Rays went the other way and lost 12 straight from Aug. 27-Sept. 10. That made them just the second MLB team to have winning and losing streaks of at least 12 games in the same season.
The Rays finished the season with a franchise-best 70 wins, which Piniella, in the second of his three seasons at the helm, felt was worth celebrating with a champagne toast. “I wanted them to feel good about themselves,” Piniella said then. “I wanted these kids to realize they had taken a step forward.” And a step into history.
A dozen to go
Here is how the 2004 Devil Rays put together a 12-game winning streak:
June Team Score
9 Giants 4-3*
10 Giants 5-2
11 Rockies 8-7*
12 Rockies 10-7
13 Rockies 3-2*
15 at Padres 5-2
16 at Padres 9-6
17 at Padres 4-1
18 at D-backs 6-2
19 at D-backs 11-4
20 at D-backs 2-1
22 at Jays 5-1
* walkoff win
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