'Something special': Rays No. 1 seed in AL

With 98th win, Rays secure winningest regular season in club history

September 30th, 2021

HOUSTON -- Kevin Kiermaier says he knew from the start that this year’s Rays were special. After Tampa Bay clinched its second straight American League East title, he shared a memory from the Rays’ first road trip of the season. They were in Boston, Kiermaier said, and he was having a drink with manager Kevin Cash in the coaches’ suite at their hotel.

“Cash asked me, he said, ‘What’s this group about?’” Kiermaier recalled Saturday night. “I said, ‘We’re going to be great. I promise you. We get along great. And there’s just a great vibe. I don’t know what it is. It’s a week or so into the season, but we’re going to be really good. I promise you that.’ And he just looked at me and said, 'OK,’ kind of like, ‘Prove it.’ And here we are.”

Here the Rays are, officially the top team in the AL and the winningest regular-season club in franchise history, after beating the Astros, 7-0, on Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park. Tampa Bay’s 98th win of the season surpassed the previous club record of 97, set in 2008, and guaranteed the Rays home-field advantage in the first two rounds of the postseason.

• Games remaining: 1 vs. Astros, 3 vs. Yankees
• Standings update: Clinched first place in the AL East on Saturday
• Home-field advantage update: Clinched for AL Division Series and AL Championship Series

This is the third time the Rays have claimed the AL’s No. 1 seed, joining 2010 and last year’s shortened season, and they are the first AL club to do so in consecutive seasons since the 2011-12 Yankees. It was hardly in question, as Tampa Bay has held sole possession of the AL’s best record since Aug. 6, but making the accomplishments official on Wednesday night was no less special. 

“They're both pretty meaningful,” Cash said. “This organization has been really good. Since 2008, they've had a lot of success, so you're talking about many playoff teams, many really good teams. To be at the top of the list, yeah, we're definitely going to appreciate that. ... We've got to go do our job, but these [postseason] series are going to start through Tampa Bay.”

They made that a reality with a complete, dominant performance against a Houston squad they could see in October.  

Starter Drew Rasmussen retired the first 12 hitters he faced and allowed just one hit in five innings. Francisco Mejía drove in one run in the second, then Brandon Lowe blasted his 35th home run of the season out to right-center off Astros starter Luis Garcia. In the fifth, Ji-Man Choi clubbed a three-run shot to right-center field to pad the Rays’ lead.

“It truly is something special to be on a team that is not only taking care of business throughout this season, but also doing it at a better clip than any team prior to us, especially with all the success they've had recently here with this organization,” said Rasmussen, who owns a 1.46 ERA in eight starts since officially joining the Rays’ rotation. “And I don't think we're satisfied, which is really cool. I think we have the opportunity to win 100 games, and that'd be one heck of a mark and a milestone to get to.”

Top reliever Andrew Kittredge said he recognized early on in the season that the Rays were a talented group, but also more than that. It was during a rough stretch, one Kittredge called “a perfect opportunity to cave.” But they didn’t. None of the adversity they’ve faced -- injuries, slumps, tough losses -- has fazed them.  

The Rays were a .500 team at the end of play on May 12. They won 24 of their next 29 games, then they lost ace Tyler Glasnow for the rest of the season. They dropped 12 of their next 17 games after that, then reeled off a 37-12 stretch from July 4 until the end of August. They assembled the Majors’ highest-scoring lineup and amassed 46 come-from-behind wins.

“We’re a really resilient group. Even when games don’t start the way we want them to or things go south at some point, we fight ‘til the end,” Kittredge said. “I really like the way we battle, even when we’re not really playing well necessarily. Then we’re scary good when we are playing good.”

Cash also praised the team’s “knack for bouncing back maybe a little bit quicker than one would expect,” and attributed that ability to both the experience returning players gained during last year’s run to the World Series and the new players who have fit right in since Spring Training. 

Reliever Collin McHugh, one of those offseason additions, remembered asking himself earlier this season, “Are we for real?” The Rays were in the middle of a tough stretch, and their numbers didn’t match up well with their opponents’ that night. Then they went out and played their kind of game -- not unlike the one they played Wednesday: racking up hits, running the bases aggressively, throwing strikes and getting outs. That’s when it hit McHugh. 

“I was like, ‘The stats are somehow not telling a story that is going on on the field, because we do this day in and day out,’” McHugh said. “That’s when I realized that we’re just really hard to beat. We might not out-talent everybody, but we are built to be really hard to beat. I feel like that, over the long haul, will make you a really successful team.”

The most successful regular-season team in franchise history, in fact, and the best team in the American League. No matter what happens next month, the Rays have proven that much. 

“As far as the ballplayers, and on the field, and the organization, and the coaching staff and everything,” principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Tuesday on the Rays’ radio pregame show, “I think it is ... fair to say that this is the best team we've fielded.”