'Another step to go': Rays clinch playoff spot, set sights on AL East crown

September 17th, 2023

BALTIMORE -- A few minutes after Cedric Mullins’ walk-off sacrifice fly landed in Manuel Margot’s glove, with a celebration raging outside, Rays manager Kevin Cash briefly addressed his team. He congratulated them on clinching a spot in the postseason for the fifth straight year, recognized all it took to get there and praised everyone who has contributed along the way.

“It's taken a lot to get here. I think everybody realizes that,” Cash said. “Really commend this group and [I’m] happy that we're in. And now, let's see where we go.”

But the Rays had been hoping for a different kind of celebration on Sunday afternoon. That much was evident inside the visitors’ clubhouse, where the furniture had been cleared out and plastic sheets were rolled up above a row of lockers. Rather than raucously spraying champagne, a small group of players quietly shared a shot.

Yes, the Rays secured a spot in the postseason thanks to the Rangers’ 9-2 loss to the Guardians. But about 35 minutes after that game ended, Tampa Bay coughed up a ninth-inning lead and lost to Baltimore, 5-4, in 11 innings as the two American League East rivals split this pivotal four-game series.

  • Games remaining 11: vs. LAA (3), vs. TOR (3), at BOS (2), at TOR (3)
  • Standings update: The Orioles (93-56) hold a two-game lead over the Rays (92-59) for first place in the AL East, and Baltimore controls the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Rays still hold a comfortable advantage in the AL Wild Card race over the Rangers, Blue Jays and Mariners.
  • Season series: Tampa Bay lost its season series to Baltimore for the first time since 2016, as the Orioles won eight of 13 matchups this season.
  • Postseason status: Clinched a playoff berth

“That’s a really good team, and that was a hell of a baseball game,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander said. “Certainly, you feel the sting of losing a game like that, and you understand its importance. But for this team to be in this position speaks so much more to them than the outcome of this particular game.”

The Rays are one of three teams to have reached the postseason every year since 2019, along with the Braves and Dodgers, with the AL West-leading Astros likely to join that group. They are the eighth team in the Wild Card era (since 1995) to make the playoffs five years in a row.

That history is one reason the Rays are not satisfied with simply getting into the postseason for the ninth time since 2008.

They still have their sights set on a fifth AL East title, believing that bypassing a best-of-three Wild Card Series creates their best path to the franchise’s first World Series championship. Sunday’s result didn’t guarantee anything for either club, but it made the Rays’ chances of achieving that goal a bit more difficult.

“I can't say that I'm too thrilled right now. Give it a little time, maybe,” reliever Pete Fairbanks said. “It's obviously something. We know that we're there, and now it's time to focus on what we really want.”

The Rays and Orioles reported to Camden Yards on Sunday with a magic number of one, needing a win in the series finale or a loss by either the Mariners or Rangers. Technically, they reached the postseason at the same time, the first two teams to enter the AL field, as Texas’ loss in Cleveland finished only moments before Adam Frazier knocked a game-tying double to left field off Fairbanks in the ninth inning at Camden Yards.

Twice, the Rays were one out away from winning the finale and taking the series.

They had held a 3-1 lead heading into the bottom of the eighth inning after back-to-back homers by rookie shortstop Tristan Gray (making his first Major League start) and Christian Bethancourt. But Adley Rutschman homered off Fairbanks -- asked to record six outs for the first time since June 22, 2021, a clear sign of the game’s importance -- in the eighth to make it a one-run game, then Frazier tied it with two outs in the ninth.

The Rays scored a run on a pair of groundouts in the 10th, only for Rutschman to tie it up with a two-out single to center off Shawn Armstrong. After holding Tampa Bay scoreless in the 11th, Baltimore played for one run and got it.

Ryan O’Hearn’s sacrifice bunt moved the automatic runner Rutschman to third base, then Mullins smacked a fly ball to deep center that let the Orioles and their frenzied home crowd soak in the club’s first postseason berth since 2016.

“Two great teams going at it. We did everything to win the game, and then they answered and kind of came back and they did everything to win the game,” said Cash, who was ejected for arguing a check-swing call after the ninth inning. “You saw great pitching, great defense, clutch hitting. You saw it all. We just came up a little short right there at the end.”

As the likely candidates to be the AL’s No. 1 seed and top Wild Card club, it’s possible -- perhaps even likely -- that Sunday wasn’t the last time the Rays and Orioles will see each other this year. They could very well meet again in October.

The Rays still hope their biggest celebrations are ahead of them.

“When you look at the bigger picture of it all, it's postseason baseball. It's what you want to do. It's the goal,” Brandon Lowe said. “It kind of starts the next goal of winning the World Series, and it's just another step to go.”