CLEVELAND -- The Rays’ final game of the year was unlike any other in postseason history. Their nearly five-hour affair with the Guardians was the first playoff game to enter the 14th inning scoreless, then it kept going. The two clubs struck out a postseason-record 39 times. Cleveland became the first team to pitch at least 14 scoreless innings in the playoffs.
But in some ways, the Rays’ 1-0 defeat on Saturday afternoon was emblematic of the 163 games that came before.
The Rays' starting pitching was excellent. So was their bullpen. Tampa Bay overcame an injury to a key player, a constant theme this season. Just about everyone played a part, as manager Kevin Cash used eight pitchers and left only one man on the bench.
But ultimately, the Rays were held back by a frustratingly inconsistent lineup that struggled to stand up against elite pitching. And so their season ended at Progressive Field in Game 2 of the American League Wild Card Series, shut out for 15 innings and unable to support their brilliant pitching.
“This two-game series, you saw about as good a pitching as you're going to see,” Cash said. “On the other side, I'll speak for our club: We're capable of more. We just couldn't get it going.”
The decisive blow came in the 15th inning against veteran starter Corey Kluber, who entered in the 13th for his first mid-inning relief appearance since his MLB debut on Sept. 1, 2011. Oscar Gonzalez led off the 15th with a walk-off homer to left-center field, setting off a long-awaited and joyous celebration in downtown Cleveland.
But the game was lost in the innings before that. And it came down to a lineup that scored one run in 24 innings over two games against Cleveland, on a sixth-inning Jose Siri homer in Game 1, but otherwise advanced only five runners to second base and three to third -- and those three came in the 10th, 12th and 15th frames on Saturday. None of them scored.
“It was tough. We're out there with our tongues out, tired, but we tried to do everything we could to maintain the game as it was,” shortstop Wander Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “We did our part on defense, and we just weren't able to score.”
Their last chance was their best one, and it represented everything that went wrong for the Rays as they were swept in a postseason series for the first time in franchise history.
The Rays had runners on the corners, including the speedy Vidal Bruján at third base, with one out in the 15th. All they needed to gain a lead was a deep enough fly ball. Instead, Francisco Mejía and Jose Siri each went down swinging on three pitches.
“Got to move the baseball,” Cash said. “I mean, that's telling that we just weren't able to do that.”
Those were the Rays’ 19th and 20th strikeouts of the game. Cash admitted Tampa Bay’s hitters were trying to do too much, “looking for the three-run homer with nobody on base.” Cleveland’s talented staff took advantage.
Between the two games, the Rays only scraped together nine hits and six walks while striking out 29 times. Their top five hitters -- Yandy Díaz, Franco, Randy Arozarena, Harold Ramírez and Ji-Man Choi -- went a combined 3-for-42 with 15 strikeouts in the series.
“We said that a lot: ‘All right, now. We're going to do it now.’ It just wasn't meant to be for us today,” Cash said. “Frustrating is a good word.”
It was a fitting end to a frustrating season for the Rays, who averaged 4.11 runs per game this year -- 1.18 runs fewer than last season, the largest decline in the Majors. After clinching their fourth straight trip to the postseason on Sept. 30 in Houston, they ended the year with seven straight losses and scored only nine runs during that skid.
Slumping toward the finish line was an especially agonizing way to go out, considering how well Tampa Bay pitched against Cleveland’s contact-oriented lineup.
Tyler Glasnow pitched five dazzling innings. Jason Adam covered for an injured Pete Fairbanks with two inning-ending double plays. Drew Rasmussen picked up five outs, and Garrett Cleavinger struck out all four hitters he faced. Then it went from Shawn Armstrong to Brooks Raley to Kluber, all giving the Rays a chance to win with just one run that never came.
“It’s not fun,” Fairbanks said. “We took it basically to the end and then ran it out there for five more innings, so I think that we fought like we have for a while now.”
But it wasn’t enough. In the end, the Rays were the last AL team to secure a spot in the postseason -- and the first to exit.
“It happened pretty quick, so what we accomplished hasn’t really sunk in yet,” outfielder Manuel Margot said through Navarro. “But we were hoping to go a little further, and now we’ve just got to prepare for next year and hopefully advance further.”