Rays clinch berth, have 'bigger aspirations'

Tampa Bay, AL's first team to reach playoffs, sets sights on AL East title -- and more

September 23rd, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- The last time the Rays clinched anything in front of their home fans, Evan Longoria’s walk-off homer in “Game 162” set off a delirious celebration at Tropicana Field. Nearly a decade later, after a 7-1 win over the Blue Jays officially sent them to the postseason for the third straight year, the Rays marked the impressive accomplishment with a relatively muted observance.

There were no champagne showers inside the home clubhouse. To hear them tell it, a bunch of Rays players didn’t even know there was something to celebrate until the late innings of Wednesday’s game. Afterward, veteran center fielder Kevin Kiermaier and manager Kevin Cash spoke to the team as they raised champagne flutes and held a toast. 

Players and staff congratulated each other in the clubhouse. A few players hung out with their families on the field. As infielder Joey Wendle sat in the home dugout afterward, he touched his T-shirt and noted, “I’m dry.” The Rays understood the meaning of the moment, but they viewed this celebration as the first of many.

“We’re in the postseason. That's great. We're all excited about that,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said. “But to say that we don't have bigger aspirations in that clubhouse, we'd be lying to everybody. We have our eyes on something else … and we'll celebrate when we do what we want to do.”

With their 94th victory of the season, the Rays became the first team in the American League to secure a spot in this year’s postseason field. This is the club’s seventh postseason berth in the last 14 years, and this will mark the first time in franchise history that Tampa Bay has made three consecutive trips to the playoffs.

What’s next for the defending AL champions? The goal they set back in Spring Training: Repeating as AL East champs. They have a 6 1/2-game division lead over the Red Sox, with a magic number of four to clinch the franchise’s fourth AL East title, and a three-game lead over the Astros for the AL’s best record.

“We're going to do everything in our power to go win the division, try to get the best record in the AL, and then go from there,” Kiermaier said. “We're happy right now, but we're not satisfied by any means. We know we have a lot more work to do, and hopefully, many more celebrations to come.”

Consider all the Rays have been through since they lost Game 6 of the World Series to the Dodgers. Many outsiders minimized their chances after they parted with top starters Charlie Morton and Blake Snell. They spent most of the season without top reliever Nick Anderson, one of many significant pitching injuries they’ve weathered this season. They lost ace Tyler Glasnow in mid-June.

But the Rays have found an answer for every question they’ve faced. Their depth has been tested time and time again, but they’ve made savvy moves and channeled a steady stream of talented top prospects into the big leagues. Long a run-prevention machine, they now feature the highest-scoring offense in franchise history -- one that has often made late-inning comebacks a matter of when, not if.

“Resilient, yes, they have been. But ultimately, they've been good,” Cash said. “They deserve to be in this spot. I know that we all recognize and appreciate that we've got more work to be done, but you’ve got to enjoy these moments because they're tough to come by.”

The Rays have spent 54 straight days leading the AL East, the longest reign atop the division in franchise history. They have held the AL’s best record for 70 days this season, including 48 straight since the end of play on Aug. 6. This might have felt like a formality, but there was still some drama leading up to Wednesday’s clinching moment.

With a large field of contenders jockeying for the top spots in the AL Wild Card race, calculating the Rays’ “magic number” to reach this point turned into a complicated mathematical matter over the last week. In fact, it was only 45 minutes before game time Wednesday when Cash learned from manager of baseball communications Craig Vanderkam that the Rays could punch their postseason ticket by simply beating the Blue Jays in their series finale.

Only 29 minutes before Luis Patiño’s first pitch to George Springer, MLB officially confirmed the Rays’ reality: Win, and they’re in.

The news spread slowly after that, at least within the Rays’ dugout. Brett Phillips said he realized they could clinch with a win after they pulled ahead by six in the third inning. Wendle said he first heard it from the Tropicana Field public address announcer, who informed fans of the possibility heading into the ninth inning.

With the announced crowd of 10,994 mostly on its feet, shortstop Taylor Walls fielded George Springer's grounder and fired the ball to first baseman Ji-Man Choi for the final out. Lowe said it hit him after that, when he saw the word “CLINCHED” flash across video boards around the ballpark. The Rays' players and coaches hopped out of the home dugout and formed a handshake line in the infield, and it set in for Kiermaier when he saw the team T-shirts that read: “Built for October.”

“I had no clue,” Kiermaier said, smiling. “But this is what it's all about. This is so much fun. There's a lot of ups and downs throughout the whole season. We're definitely going to cherish this moment right now and feel good about ourselves, but at the same time, we know our work isn't done.”

As Kiermaier put it, Wednesday was just the day the Rays put their foot in the door. That attitude explained the relatively subdued celebration that took place afterward. The Rays remain focused on hanging another AL East championship banner in left-center field, and they’d like to continue adding to their collection in October.

“We're happy that we made the playoffs. That was the main objective,” outfielder Randy Arozarena, who’s set for an October encore after his historic postseason run last year, said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “The next goal is now to win the division. … That was the goal. And now it's just to keep on going and get that World Series.”

That became the objective the moment the Rays watched from across the field as the Dodgers rushed out of their dugout at Globe Life Field to celebrate their World Series victory. The Rays have taken an incremental step forward each of the last few seasons -- from four straight losing records to a 90-win campaign in 2018, to returning to the postseason in ‘19, to reaching last year’s World Series.

There’s still one step remaining.

“We have one main goal, and it's to be in the position we were last year,” Lowe said, “with a different outcome.”