'First step' complete: Resilient Rays punch ticket to postseason

October 1st, 2022

HOUSTON -- The floor of the visitors' clubhouse at Minute Maid Park was littered with corks from champagne bottles and caps from cans of Budweiser. In the center of the room, veteran outfielder David Peralta strapped on goggles and sprayed two bottles of bubbly at a time. Randy Arozarena, Jose Siri and Pete Fairbanks, among others, doused their unsuspecting teammates and coaches with beer.

“I like it,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I want to see it a couple more times.”

They've played without aces and franchise faces. They’ve taken the field missing key figures from start to finish. They’ve surged and slumped and once again summoned a small army of players to get through the last six months.

And for the fourth straight year, the resilient Rays are headed to the postseason.

The Rays finally got to pop champagne and celebrate after their 7-3 win over the Astros on Friday night at Minute Maid Park. They will be one of the three American League Wild Card teams, joining the Blue Jays (who clinched Thursday) and the Mariners (who also clinched Friday), alongside the division champion Astros, Yankees and Guardians.

“It’s definitely a celebration, that's for sure,” said starter Drew Rasmussen, who breezed through seven strong innings in Friday’s clinching victory. “It's well deserved by everyone in there.”

Postseason status: Clinched
Record: 86-71
Games remaining: 5
AL Wild Card: The Blue Jays lead the Rays by two games for the first berth; the Mariners lead the Rays by a half-game for the second berth
Seeding battle: Tampa Bay owns tiebreakers over Toronto (10-9 in the season series) and Seattle (5-2); Seattle owns the tiebreaker over Toronto (5-2).

They earned it after a journey that was anything but easy, something Cash acknowledged in a brief speech that set off Tampa Bay’s postgame celebration.

"Up, down, you guys have stayed and remained consistent all season long,” Cash told the team. “Be really proud. The goal now is to be doing this in a week. Let's go!"

Only four players from Tampa Bay’s Opening Day roster remained active throughout the season: Arozarena, infielder Taylor Walls, starter Corey Kluber and reliever Jason Adam. According to Spotrac, only the Reds and Twins have lost more days to the injured list this year.

“I think the team is built on depth. We have a lot of it, and it was tested,” Fairbanks said. “That's what we've been built on, and that's what we've done these past years.”

Back issues limited Brandon Lowe to 65 games. Outfielder Manuel Margot missed two months. In June, they lost All-Stars Andrew Kittredge and Mike Zunino for the year. A month later, Wander Franco and Kevin Kiermaier hit the injured list together. Franco has played only 80 games, although he delivered a key go-ahead single in the fifth inning Friday.

Key relievers J.P. Feyereisen, Nick Anderson and Ryan Thompson joined Kittredge on the IL. Top pitching prospect Shane Baz made six starts before an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. Ace Tyler Glasnow didn’t make his season debut until Wednesday.

In typical Rays fashion, they found a way. After setting a franchise record by using 61 players last year, Tampa Bay has used 60 this year, once again showing a knack for finding talent where others might not see it.

“We talk a lot about being in a position where the depth is important because of health and unexpected performance, up or down,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander said. “You've got to have it all covered, and this group certainly has.”

Harold Ramírez, who’s hitting .309, and Isaac Paredes, tied for the team lead with 20 homers, were acquired through trades during Spring Training. So was Adam, who’s been a stabilizing force in an ever-changing bullpen. Jeffrey Springs moved into the rotation in May and has posted a 2.45 ERA in 132 1/3 innings overall. Siri, a Trade Deadline pickup, has fit right in.

The Rays’ returning stars came through, too. McClanahan developed into a front-line starter, an All-Star and the team’s MVP. Rasmussen has been a rock in their rotation. Fairbanks, on a 22-game scoreless streak, has been untouchable late in games. Arozarena built upon his Rookie of the Year Award-winning season. Yandy Díaz, who had three hits in his return to the lineup on Friday, has been their most consistent hitter.

The Rays have still had their ups and downs through it all. On July 10, they were 45-40 and 15 1/2 games out of first place in the AL East. On Aug. 12, they dropped a half-game behind the Orioles and out of the postseason picture. The next day, they reclaimed a Wild Card spot to start the 28-18 stretch that ended with Friday’s wild, wet celebration.

They believe it was just the beginning.

“I think it's the first step,” Glasnow said. “I hope we can do this a bunch more times.”