Why Rays are already playing playoff baseball

September 9th, 2022

This story was excerpted from Adam Berry's Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. PETERSBURG -- There are two ways to look at the Rays’ remaining schedule.

On one hand, it seems almost unreasonably difficult compared to their non-American League East competition in the Wild Card race. The Mariners can practically waltz into October, for instance, with their final series coming against the Angels, A’s (twice), Royals, Rangers and Tigers, all far out of the postseason picture.

Meanwhile, the Rays are about to run the gauntlet: Three games against the Yankees this weekend in the Bronx, nine against the Blue Jays, six against the Astros, three against the Guardians and only six against non-contenders in the Rangers and Red Sox. That’s 12 games against the current division leaders and nine against a top Wild Card contender.

On the other hand …

“I think it's a benefit, right? If we win, we're in,” Drew Rasmussen said earlier this week. “It's in front of us, and it's our job to show up to the yard every day ready to play. We beat these teams down the home stretch, there's no questioning if we're in or not. So, I think it's a good spot.”

The Rays don’t have a choice in the matter -- the schedule is what it is -- but that seems like the best outlook to take over the next four weeks. If they win, they’ll have played their way in and earned whatever spot they get. And if they win a lot, it’ll mean they might be playing their best baseball of the season heading into the most important part of the year.

“I feel like this is what everybody kind of wants to see. It feels like playoff baseball before playoff baseball,” Brandon Lowe said. “We're facing everybody that's either going to be in the postseason or is vying for a Wild Card spot. It makes for really fun baseball to watch, and I think it's really going to help us prepare, hopefully, to make a deep run into this postseason.

“We're not playing any games that don't matter. We're playing games that are going to be 100 percent. The adrenaline's going to be running, and every game right now means something.”

There’s a fun debate to be had about the best possible landing spot in the Wild Card field. The top Wild Card gets to host a three-game series, and the No. 6 overall seed is on track to face the AL Central winner, which might be a worse club on paper than all three Wild Card teams, no matter who wins that division race.

The one to avoid, clearly, is the No. 5 seed, as that would likely mean a three-game series on the road in either Seattle (starving for the return of playoff baseball and a brutal cross-country flight after a long road trip to end the season) or Toronto (a wild atmosphere, especially come October).

But that’s a conversation for another day. The Rays are maintaining their focus on the day in front of them, with everything on the table -- including a third straight AL East title -- if they do what they believe they’re capable of.

“I think every game from here on out's going to be fun. Every team we're playing, it's going to be a good environment,” Taylor Walls said. “Every game's going to matter. Every game's going to have something on the line. We're going to have to bring it, but we are going to.”