Nathan Haynes could never put it all together even after he arrived in Tampa Bay. But in a season of miracles, Haynes provided one of the sparks.
Haynes was selected by the Oakland Athletics with the 32nd overall pick in the 1997 MLB Draft out of Pinole Valley High School in California, one pick after the Devil Rays selected Jason Standridge. He was a 5’9″, 180 lefty-swinging outfielder who stood out most for his speed. Haynes got his professional career off to a good start in that same ’97 season, posting a .279/.431/.309 line with 24 of 28 steals and 33 walks versus 30 strikeouts. The A’s shot him up to High-A Modesto at just age 18 in 1998 (the average age was 23 and a half), and he wasn’t as good but did hold his own, posting a .252/.328/.312 line with 13 doubles, 7 triples, 1 homer, 41 RBI, 42 of 60 steals, but 139 strikeouts versus 39 walks. Haynes returned to Modesto in 1999, but he was part of a trade deadline deal with the Anaheim Angels along with fellow prospects Elvin Nina and Jeff DaVanon that netted the A’s Randy Velarde and Omar Olivares. Between the Athletics and Angels organizations in ’99, Haynes posted a .307/.390/.420 with 13 doubles, 6 triples, 2 homers, 29 RBI, and a 51-34 strikeout to walk ratio, but just 22 of 37 stolen bases in 66 games as part of an injury-riddled season.
Haynes struggled with injuries and stolen base success over the next 3 seasons before finally having a solid season in 2003 still at just 23 years old between Double-A and Triple-A, when he posted a .276/.338/.404 line with 19 doubles, 13 triples, 6 homers, 49 RBI, 33 of 42 steals, and a decent 94-43 strikeout to walk ratio. Nevertheless, the Angels allowed Haynes to leave as a minor league free agent following the season and he signed with the San Francisco Giants. But Haynes time with the Giants was a complete disaster as he played just 7 games in two seasons because of a series of injuries. Haynes was stuck playing independent ball for 2006 with his career in question.
Haynes finally signed with a major league team in late June of 2006, catching back on with the Angels. Haynes then went on a tear to begin 2007, posting a .386/.462/.579 line with 9 doubles, 6 triples, 4 homers, 32 RBI, and 14 of 21 stolen bases in 44 games, and he was so good that the Angels called him up in late May. The rest of the season, Haynes appeared in 40 games, posting a .267/.313/.311 line with a lone extra-base hit, a triple, and 1 RBI while playing stellar defense at all three outfield positions.
The newly-renamed Rays claimed Haynes off waivers at the end of spring training in 2008 and he made the roster as a backup outfielder. In April, Haynes didn’t play much, appearing in just 16 games and starting only 7 times. But he made his time count. He laced one hit that may have changed the Rays season.
On Friday, April 25th, 2008, the Rays began a 3-game set with the first place Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field. The Rays had a chance to tie the Red Sox atop the AL East if they could pull off a sweep. The first game was a classic.
The Rays got a few runs off of Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield, getting him for four runs, 3 earned in 5 innings including a Carl Crawford RBI single. But Matt Garza wasn’t much better, allowing 3 runs in 5 innings, J.P. Howell came into the game for the 6th inning, but he got in a jam before a Julio Lugo groundout tied the game at 4. Howell threw the next 2 innings as well without allowing another run, but David Aardsma and Bryan Corey matched him for Boston. Dan Wheeler tossed a scoreless 9th in the Rays before they got a rally together against Corey in the 9th. With 2 outs and B.J. Upton on first, Carlos Pena laced a pinch-hit single advancing Upton to 3rd. Nathan Haynes pinch-ran for Pena. Evan Longoria was then intentionally walked for the first time in his career. But Javier Lopez came in to get Eric Hinske to fly out to send the game into extra-innings.
Trevor Miller started the 10th for the Rays, but after a couple of walks, Gary Glover had to come in to force an inning-ending double play. Lopez and Mike Timlin worked a scoreless bottom of the 10th for the Red Sox. Glover then got into major trouble in the 10th for the Rays, facing a 1st and 3rd, 1 out situation before Scott Dohmann forced another huge double play to keep the game tied. Then in the 11th, the Rays got a rally of their own together on a Carl Crawford single and stolen base and a B.J. Upton walk. But instead of Jonny Gomes or Carlos Pena being up, the batter was the light-hitting backup outfielder Nathan Haynes. And Haynes drilled a line drive single to right field, scoring Crawford to give the Rays an exhilarating 5-4 win.
The Rays would sweep the Red Sox, letting the whole baseball world know that they were for real and giving them the confidence to know that they could hang with the teams considered to be the class of the AL East. After starting the season 11-11, the Rays went 86-54 the rest of the season, stunningly winning the AL East and beating the Red Sox again in a gripping 7-game ALCS to win the first American League pennant in franchise history in their first playoff appearance. Haynes was long gone, sent down to Triple-A in early May. But without his hit, who knows how the season would have gone.