'Same old, same old' for playoff-bound Rays

Everyone from front office to clubhouse to Minors has played part in 3-year playoff streak

September 23rd, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- After the Rays beat the Blue Jays 7-1 to clinch a spot in the postseason Wednesday, they exchanged handshakes and high-fives in the infield, then retreated to the home clubhouse at Tropicana Field for a relatively low-key celebration.

As players and staff toasted what they’ve done and looked ahead to what they want to do next, manager Kevin Cash said a few words. Before that, veteran center fielder spoke at greater length. Kiermaier, the Rays’ longest-tenured player, said he congratulated his teammates on getting their “foot in the door,” reminded them that they’re still pushing toward their goal of winning the franchise’s first World Series and thanked everyone in the organization for all their hard work.

“Just kind of the same old, same old,” Kiermaier said afterward in Tampa Bay’s dugout.

That Kiermaier could consider that moment “same old, same old” says more than any speech about where the Rays are as an organization.

In 2019, clinching a playoff spot was a big moment for Tampa Bay after a five-year playoff drought. Last year, they expected to be back and better than before. On Wednesday, as the Rays punched their postseason ticket for the club-record third straight time, it felt like only the beginning.

“Just different seasons, different position that we’re in,” infielder said. “A couple years ago was the first time we were there in a while. So it’s no less a big deal today, but this is hopefully step one of many.”

The Rays aren’t the only team thinking that way. The Brewers have already secured a spot for the fourth consecutive year. The Astros should soon celebrate their fifth clinch in a row. The Dodgers are back in the postseason for the ninth straight time.

But for the Rays, a franchise-first streak like this represents the significant strides they’ve made toward creating a sustainable small-market contender under president of baseball operations Erik Neander. Even as they reached the playoffs four times from 2008-13, they never made it three years in a row.

“There's some special people in the organization -- special minds from scouting to player development to [research and development] to the front office,” Cash added. “Everybody plays a hand, and I think Erik does such a good job of allowing everybody to play a hand and try to get the best out of people.”

In 2018, the Rays won 90 games and finished third in the American League East. In ’19, they won 96 games and finished second. During last year’s shortened season, they posted a .667 winning percentage and claimed their first AL East title since 2010.

Now, with nine games remaining this season, they’re four wins shy of topping the franchise record (97, set in 2008) and are in position to win the AL East as soon as this weekend. That would be another milestone for the Rays, as they’ve never won their division in back-to-back seasons.

“I speak for everyone when I say there's just something special about this group, and we have what it takes to hoist the trophy at the end of the year,” Kiermaier said. “We’ve acquired a lot of talent over the years and have a really good thing going here, and I think the winning is going to keep continuing.”

The Rays have provided plenty of evidence to support that. They’ve received massive contributions from rookies like , and . They have one of the game's top-ranked farm systems pushing talented prospects to the Majors while winning at an unmatched level throughout the Minors. And they haven’t missed a beat the last few years despite a significant amount of turnover on their roster.

There have been some constants on the field throughout this three-year run. Among this year’s regular position players, Kiermaier, , , , , and Wendle have been around all three years.

But consider that six of the 2019 team’s nine most valuable players, according to Baseball Reference WAR, were Charlie Morton, Willy Adames, Tommy Pham, Tyler Glasnow, Avisaíl García and Emilio Pagán. Pham and Pagán were traded the following offseason, García left as a free agent, Morton’s club option was declined last winter, Adames was traded this May and Glasnow was lost to a season-ending injury in mid-June. Many teams couldn’t withstand the loss of that many “core” players.

Additionally, consider that 59.3 percent of the Rays’ innings last postseason (104 of 175 1/3) were pitched by Glasnow, Morton, Blake Snell, Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo. They parted ways with Morton and Snell in the offseason, got only 14 starts and 88 innings out of Glasnow, traded Castillo in July and spent nearly 5 1/2 months without Anderson this year. Their pitching staff still owns a 3.76 ERA this season, tied for third best in the AL.

“If I was new to the organization this year, I would say [it’s] very surprising,” outfielder said. “When we traded Blake Snell and [lost] Charlie Morton in the offseason, I'm sure everyone was like, 'What's going on? Like, those are two key factors that helped us get to the World Series last year.' And then they bring in guys that help us get to where we're at this year. I never question anything they do anymore -- nor did I ever.”

The Rays have managed to turn over their roster while still winning year after year after year, turning celebrations into part of their expectations. So what does that “same old, same old” say about Tampa Bay?

“It's a good time to be a Rays fan,” Lowe said, grinning.