Clinched! Rays seal 2nd straight AL East title

Lowe after 4-hit game in clincher: 'There’s nothing that beats the burn of champagne'

September 26th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- With a sold-out crowd standing and cheering at Tropicana Field, two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth inning, Pete Fairbanks fired a high two-strike fastball that Lewis Brinson popped up into foul territory. Ji-Man Choi settled under the ball to secure the final out of the Rays’ 7-3 win over the Marlins in his glove, and the celebration was on.

Players and coaches congratulated each other near the mound, exchanged more hugs and handshakes along the first-base line and traded their throwback Devil Rays uniforms for T-shirts with a different logo: “American League East Division Champs 2021.”

They gathered for a team photo on the mound, with Randy Arozarena making a late slide across the grass to take his place up front. After spraying champagne in the home clubhouse, they returned to the field to celebrate with family and friends -- and a loyal group of fans cheering their names behind the home dugout.

This was the goal the Rays set back in Spring Training, their primary objective for the regular season. The defending AL champions didn’t want to just get back to the postseason. They set their sights higher, refusing to settle for anything less than their second straight division championship in the unforgiving AL East. On Saturday night, they achieved that goal.

“We've proven we're the best team in the American League for six months,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Let's keep grinding, and let's do it for one more month and then see where we go.”

Games remaining: Seven
Standings update: Clinched first place in the AL East, leading the Red Sox and Yankees by eight games; best record in the AL, leading the Astros by five games
Magic number for division title: Clinched

The Rays’ victory over the Marlins, coming on the heels of the Yankees’ 5-3 win against the Red Sox at Fenway Park earlier Saturday evening, reduced Tampa Bay’s magic number from two to zero and clinched the fourth division title in franchise history.

The Rays (96-59) have been alone atop the division for 57 consecutive days, a franchise record. They became just the second team in the Majors this year to clinch a division title, joining the AL Central champion White Sox.

“This was our goal. I think with the position that we were in, to be anything short of division champs would have been a pretty big letdown,” infielder Joey Wendle said. “It’s nice kind of hanging out with the guys to celebrate a little bit, enjoy with the family and then shift our focus to tomorrow and the postseason.”

The Blue Jays are loaded with talented players, including an AL MVP contender and an AL Cy Young Award candidate. The Yankees are the Yankees, always contending with a roster full of recognizable names and the Majors’ second-highest payroll. The Red Sox were in first place for much of the season’s first four months.

The Rays are, once again, AL East champions.

“It's special,” Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander said, looking from the home dugout to the 2008, 2010 and 2020 AL East championship banners hanging high above left field. “Those banners are up there, and you look at them plenty and you see the gaps in time between the AL East division titles, and it reminds you just how hard this is.”

There won’t be a gap this time. After sprinting to their first AL East championship in a decade during last year’s 60-game season, the Rays’ talent and depth won out over the course of a six-month, 162-game campaign. If nothing else, Wendle said, this year’s division crown proves that last year’s was no fluke. The AL East sent three teams to last year’s expanded postseason field and could feature four 90-win clubs this season, and the Rays have shown themselves to be the class of the division.

“I think it’s at least an internal standard that we set for ourselves,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “We set a challenge to ourselves last year. It was a 60-game season, and we had a heck of a season last year. But to do it in 162 is something else. … Our first and second goals are accomplished, and now we’re ready to take the next step.”

This is the first time the Rays have won back-to-back AL East titles, and Saturday was the first time in franchise history they were able to celebrate a division-clinching game at home. They were in Detroit in 2008, in Kansas City in 2010 and in New York last year. They got to enjoy this one in front of a season-high crowd of 23,783 at Tropicana Field.

And once the last out found its way into Choi’s glove, yes, they did enjoy it.

“This is the best team in the American League,” infielder Yandy Díaz said through interpreter Manny Navarro, “and today we showed it.”

After punching their ticket to the postseason on Wednesday, the Rays were somewhat reserved in their celebration. They poured champagne into flutes and held a toast in their clubhouse, a postgame party that left all participants dry. They still have bigger goals, with a World Series championship at the top of the list, but they were waiting for this moment to let loose a little bit more.

They put on ski goggles and popped bottles in the clubhouse -- “a bunch of grown men acting like little kids,” as center fielder Kevin Kiermaier put it. It was somewhat of a return to normalcy after last year’s COVID-19 protocols forced them to turn to confetti cannons and Silly String with a few victory cigars smoked only outside, in the dugout.

“This was the first check mark. It was awesome. It was something we definitely missed last year,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said. “Confetti poppers are fun, but there’s nothing that beats the burn of champagne. It burns so good.”

“That's what it's all about,” Kiermaier added. “And hopefully, we have many more of those yet to come.”

Three more, to be specific.

“This is just the start of it,” outfielder Austin Meadows said. “This is where the fun begins, and hopefully we can keep having fun.”

Even the Rays’ celebration reflected what it’s taken to get to this point. Tampa Bay has used 61 players this season, a franchise record, including 38 different pitchers. The Rays have a large group of good players, even if they’re not household names nationally, but they rely on everyone on their roster to succeed -- and a bunch of players who weren’t at Tropicana Field on Saturday night.

So as they convened after the game, the Rays set up a computer in their clubhouse and set up a Zoom call with Triple-A Durham. They wanted to make sure the Durham squad was a part of it all, for the players and staff there to share in the celebration they helped make possible.

“Seemed appropriate,” Neander said. “We’re not at this moment without those efforts in addition to everything that was done here.”