Rays 'very encouraged' heading into ALDS

October 4th, 2021

NEW YORK -- The Rays already knew when and where their postseason run would begin: Thursday, in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, at Tropicana Field. Now, they know the two familiar opponents they might face there.

The potentially chaotic scenarios that could have unfolded Sunday, resulting in three- or four-team tiebreakers in the coming days, did not come to pass. The Rays lost a nail-biter to the Yankees, 1-0, on Aaron Judge’s walk-off infield single off Andrew Kittredge. About half an hour later, the Red Sox came back to beat the Nationals, 7-5.

For both teams, winning on the final day of the season guaranteed them a spot in the postseason. On Tuesday, the Yankees will play the Red Sox at Fenway Park for a chance to match up with the Rays in the best-of-five ALDS.

“I'm sure we'll all be watching,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “This is a fun time of the year, and certainly the appreciation for the guys is at an all-time high.”

After capping the most successful regular season in franchise history on Sunday afternoon, the Rays can travel home, rest and get ready for what comes next. Monday’s day off will also allow them an opportunity to reflect on all they’ve already accomplished this year.

This was the Rays’ first 100-win season, something done by only 18 other AL teams in the Wild Card era. (Of those 18, seven reached the World Series and four won it all: the 2018 Red Sox, ‘17 Astros, ‘09 Yankees and 1998 Yankees.) Their lineup finished second in the Majors in runs scored, with 857. They owned the AL’s best ERA, at 3.67.

“This is a magnificent team,” outfielder Randy Arozarena, who completed his 20-homer, 20-steal season by swiping second base in the eighth inning Sunday, said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “We went out there and came out to be the best team in the American League, and now our goal is to go out there and win the World Series.”

The Rays’ past six games, in Houston and at a rowdy Yankee Stadium, undoubtedly helped prepare them for the magnitude of the games they’re about to play. The crowd of 40,409 on Sunday roared all afternoon, and the noise led to miscommunication that caused a pair of collisions in the field -- first between Joey Wendle and Ji-Man Choi, then between Wander Franco and Arozarena.

While the Rays had already clinched everything they could, including the AL’s best record, the Yankees and their fans had a lot on the line in Game 162. When play began around 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, there were four teams -- the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Mariners -- still in the mix for two AL Wild Card spots. The potential tiebreaker scenarios could have led to a Game 163 and perhaps even Game 164 on Tuesday before even getting to the AL Wild Card Game and then, finally, ALDS Game 1.

“We were all watching. I was definitely watching the scoreboard,” Cash said. “You can't replicate these experiences. We know it's not postseason yet, but it's the postseason for that team over there, and they played with a lot of intensity.”

There was no better example of that than Gio Urshela’s sixth-inning catch, a gritty play -- “maybe the best play of the season,” Cash said -- that ended with him tumbling into the Rays’ dugout. But Tampa Bay matched that intensity, with Austin Meadows and Brett Phillips making diving catches in the outfield and Franco making a smooth, sliding stop in the eighth inning.

Yankees starter Jameson Taillon and a parade of relievers shut out Tampa Bay, the eighth time the Rays were held scoreless this season. But right-hander Michael Wacha (five scoreless innings) and three relievers countered by shutting down the Yankees for eight frames.

“Very encouraged with just the whole weekend, how it played out,” Cash said. “Unfortunate that we came up short today, but not by not pitching.”

The Rays finally blinked in the ninth. Left-hander Josh Fleming gave up a pair of singles and exited in favor of Kittredge with one out and runners on second and third. Judge hit a grounder that deflected off Kittredge’s glove, resulting in an almost impossible play for second baseman Brandon Lowe. Tyler Wade dashed home to score the game’s only run, and the Yankees rushed the field to celebrate their postseason berth.

Would the Rays rather see the Yankees again or square off with the Red Sox? It’s hard to say. They finished the season with identical 11-8 records against the Yankees and Red Sox, although their run differentials against the Yankees (plus-48) and Red Sox (plus-two) tell different stories.

“We feel good. We're all happy. We were able to clinch a playoff spot earlier than most teams,” Arozarena said. “We know we've got to go out there and compete. We're facing good teams. Regardless of who we face, I think we're ready to compete against them.”

The Rays will learn Tuesday night who awaits them Thursday at Tropicana Field. But after this past week, they already have a feel for the atmosphere and energy they’ll find there.

“It’s extremely exciting. It was nice to be able to play a playoff-caliber series the last two series here at the end of the year, and we’re excited to be getting back,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “It’ll be nice to hopefully let some guys get a little bit of rest, get their feet back under them after a long year, but we’re excited.

“Anytime we can play together as a team, we have a lot of fun. So it’s going to be exciting to get there back at The Trop and play in front of our home crowd.”