ST. PETERSBURG -- Like Rays manager Kevin Cash and the players who spoke after being eliminated from the postseason on Monday night at Fenway Park, president of baseball operations Erik Neander found himself balancing two different emotions in the wake of Tampa Bay’s earlier-than-expected exit in the American League Division Series.
On one hand, Neander was obviously proud of everything the club accomplished during its 100-win romp through the regular season. It was the best 162-game season in Tampa Bay history in just about every way, with another AL East championship and the AL’s best record to prove as much. Yet, Neander also acknowledged the ultimate outcome was “certainly disappointing.”
“There's so much that goes into this that you're not human if you don't have those feelings right now,” Neander said on Tuesday as he sat beside Cash for an end-of-season press conference at Tropicana Field. “But it's what it is. We won't feel too sorry for ourselves here, and it's time to find a way to make it better next year. And ultimately, I do believe that [with] the talent we have, we're going to kick down the door sooner rather than later and finally get the World Series we're chasing.”
Now, it falls on Neander and his baseball operations staff to construct a roster capable of taking the next step. The Rays have made the postseason seven times since 2008, a remarkable run given their low payrolls during that time, yet they’ve lost in the ALDS round five times and in the World Series twice.
What’s it going to take to finish the job?
“Great talent, great health, good fortune, good timing. Really, it takes a lot of all of that,” Neander said. “In our belief, our best chance to win a World Series is to have a shot as many years as possible, and I think we are succeeding in that right now. And we just have to stay at it and continue to have an opportunity as many years as possible by getting in the dance, and from there, anything can happen.”
Neander noted the somewhat unpredictable nature of the postseason, though he wouldn’t use it as an excuse. Before Games 2-4 in the ALDS, the last time Tampa Bay lost three consecutive games was July 25-28 -- about 2 1/2 months ago. And Tampa Bay won 11 of its final 15 games against Boston after being swept in their first meeting of the season, only to lose three of four in October. Anything can happen during a best-of-five series in baseball.
The Rays also relied on young players at the most critical, high-stress point of the season, including three young starters in Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz and Drew Rasmussen. They struggled at various points -- Baz in Game 2, Rasmussen in Game 3, McClanahan out of the bullpen in Game 4 after an excellent Game 1 start. But once again, Neander had to balance two feelings: short-term frustration over what just happened, and long-term optimism that they’ll be better for it.
“That's the way we're going to have to do this oftentimes, but with that, in some of these experiences, obviously some of those younger players didn't have their best series,” Neander said. “That's something that I think is really going to accelerate their development moving forward, and along with their talent, you hope there's a lot of benefits that comes from that despite some of the disappointments, performances and outcomes related to the games.”
Lowe’s postseason woes
For the second straight year, Brandon Lowe was the Rays’ most productive player during the regular season. For the second straight year, the second baseman struggled in the playoffs.
Coming off a campaign in which he hit .247/.340/.523 with 39 homers and 99 RBIs in 149 games, Lowe went 0-for-18 with nine strikeouts in the ALDS. In 100 plate appearances over the last two postseasons, he’s just 9-for-94 with 37 strikeouts and a .373 OPS. It’s so far out of character, and such a drastic split, that Neander had no explanation for why it’s taken place.
“It's a great question, and it's a fair question. I'm sure it's one that he really wrestles with,” Neander said. “I think that's the reality of it. I don't know. I understand that it would be nice if there were an answer. He'd be the first one to chase it down and [the Rays] would love nothing more than to help with that.”
Neander was hesitant to draw any sweeping conclusions, noting that Lowe has changed as a hitter from 2019 to this past season. So, whatever gave Lowe trouble against the Red Sox might not be related at all to his performance the previous two years. Asked about his struggles before Game 4, Lowe simply said, twice, “It feels like I haven't gotten any hits.”
Cash acknowledged before Game 4 at Fenway Park that Lowe was being pitched tough, left without many fastballs to hit. Neander noted that Lowe hit some balls hard in Game 1, when he went 0-for-4 without a strikeout, then “the quality of [at-bats] probably deteriorated a little bit relative to his standards” in the final three games.
“I think who he is as a hitter and how he's matured is different enough that it's hard to lump it all together,” Neander said. “But at the same time, the results in the three postseasons are what they are, and we'd like to think we'll give him another shot to get back and make it right next year.”