Rays secure first AL East title since 2010

September 24th, 2020

Just minutes after falling short in Game 5 of last year’s American League Division Series against the Astros, the message in the Rays’ clubhouse was simple: Come back better in 2020 and win the American League East.

With an 8-5 victory over the Mets on Wednesday at Citi Field, the Rays won their first AL East division crown since 2010 and third in franchise history, completing the goal the team set out for 11 months ago.

“I don’t know if you can ever prepare for a moment like that, it’s pretty special,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “I don’t think any of us will fully appreciate what they have accomplished and what they have been through to get here, probably for some time. Not this offseason, but years down the road.”

The Rays clinched the division title and home-field advantage in the Wild Card Series by doing the same things that have propelled them to the top of the AL standings. got the scoring started with a solo home run in the second inning. gave the Rays a 4-2 lead with a two-run shot in the sixth. , the team’s best offensive player this season, hit an upper-deck two-run homer to extend the lead in the eighth. And Arozarena capped things off with his second blast of the night -- a mammoth solo home run in the ninth.

That was plenty of run support for .

Glasnow was sharp again, allowing two runs on just three hits while striking out eight. Glasnow has recorded seven or more strikeouts in eight consecutive starts. The next time he takes the mound will likely be in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series at Tropicana Field.

After the last out was recorded, the Rays made sure to have a good time while still abiding by the necessary protocols. The Rays couldn’t pop champagne, as they would be doing in a normal year, but they were able to make the most of it by popping confetti, silly string and enjoying socially distant cigars in the visiting dugout.

“I think they wanted to pop something, in a sense, and that was the confetti cannons and the silly string,” said Rays center fielder . “We show up to the field each and every day and we’re little kids trapped in grown men’s bodies, and the silly string is a perfect way to do just that. I think we’re gonna have to credit [home clubhouse manager Ryan Denlinger] for that.”

Though different, the celebration was certainly earned after undergoing a grueling 60-game season. The team started 5-7 and lost five key pitchers to season-ending injuries. At one point, the Rays had 10 pitchers on the injured list, the most of any team in the Majors. They also dealt with injuries to Yandy Díaz, Ji-Man Choi and Austin Meadows, who are integral pieces to the offense.

Combine that with all the protocols in place, especially on the road, and some players around the league have argued that winning this season could be the most difficult task in Major League history. Regardless of the circumstances, the Rays found a way to come out on top.

“This season brings you close together,” Cash said. “You couldn’t ask for a group that supports each other more. The guys harp on being good teammates -- we have 28 great teammates and plenty more that aren’t able to be here for the celebration because of injuries and stuff like that. Just a bunch of quality people.”

Wendle added: “It’s a great accomplishment to be champions of this division for the regular season. That’s something that doesn’t come around too often, so that’s pretty special, regardless of if it’s a 60-game or 162-game season. So that’s really fun and we’re really proud of that, and that was another step along the way to the World Series.”

Things looked much different for the organization the last time it hung an AL East banner. The only current player who was in the organization in 2010 was Kiermaier, who was a 31st-round Draft pick earlier that season. Glasnow said he was a “goofy” junior in high school at the time. Diego Castillo hadn’t been signed and was still working on the farm in the Dominican Republic. Only three players on the 40-man roster were over 21.

On Wednesday, they were all on the same field, celebrating a division title.

“It’s definitely something nobody can take away from you,” said Kiermaier, the longest-tenured player on the team. “This isn’t a World Series trophy or anything like that, it’s a division, but it’s not easy. Ever since I’ve been here full time, dating back to 2014, it’s always been somebody else other than us, and it feels so good to finally have that crown and be on top of the rest of our division.”

Since their inception in 1998, the Rays have dealt with the stigma of being the small-market team in a division that includes the Yankees and Red Sox, two of the traditional powerhouses in the Majors.

The Yankees and Red Sox naturally get the most national attention. They have the history, the tradition, and more importantly, a checkbook that usually allows them to sign the highest-profile free agents. The Rays, on the other hand, operate with smart scouting, opportunistic roster moves and a baseball-operations staff that is second to none.

It came in an unprecedented season, but there’s a new Beast in the East, and it resides in St. Petersburg.

“There’s not many banners up there that say American League East champions, and there’s going to be one next year that says that,” Cash said. “I think we all agree that we want to add to that, but you can’t add to that without getting this, and this was a really big step in the right direction.”