OAKLAND -- If it wasn't for Ji-Man Choi, you can make an argument that the Rays wouldn't have had an opportunity to play in Wednesday's win-or-go-home American League Wild Card Game against the A's.
Choi is a big presence in the middle of Tampa Bay's lineup, and his six September home runs seemed to come at critical moments throughout the month. But when the Rays submitted their lineup against A's lefty Sean Manaea, Choi, Brandon Lowe and Joey Wendle were all left off the starting nine, because Tampa Bay felt going with seven right-handed hitters was the best matchup.
This is just what the Rays do, and they proved it in Wednesday's 5-1 win over the A's at the Oakland Coliseum. They won't beat you with household names and they won't trot out a consistent starting lineup every single night. They're going to work in unorthodox ways and they're going to make decisions based on what they believe is the best matchup.
"That's the forte of this team," said Rays infielder Michael Brosseau. "Everybody knows it's next man up. And if it's not your time, you know your time is coming soon."
Wednesday served as Brosseau's time. The decision to add him to the 25-man roster surprised some people, and the decision to start him at second base over Lowe or Wendle created an even bigger discussion. But Tampa Bay believed having Brosseau in the lineup and in the infield was going to be the best matchup.
Brosseau went 0-for-2 with a walk at the plate, but his defensive versatility was on full display. He started the game at second, shifted over to third when the Rays pinch-hit for Matt Duffy in the third and then slid over to first when Yandy Díaz was taken out for a pinch-runner in the seventh. Brosseau became the first player to play those three positions in a single postseason game.
"We embrace it, man," Brosseau said. "We love playing for each other. This is what it's all about. I couldn't even dream about this a couple of years ago and now we're living it, man. Now we're living it."
The four home runs tied a franchise record for homers in a postseason game. Tampa Bay became the third team in MLB postseason history to record four home runs in a winner-take-all game, joining the 2004 Red Sox in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series and the 1956 Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series.
"We try and learn from everybody," said Rays vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom. "We think about first what's going to give us the best chance to win a game, and not something that is typical. If we're able to communicate it, get guys to buy in and to believe in it, we're willing to roll it out and give it a shot."
Once the Rays get out to a lead, it's going to be tough to beat a bullpen that was one of the AL's best. Diego Castillo tossed two shutout innings on Wednesday, and Nick Anderson has the potential to become a household name if he builds on his scoreless 1 1/3 innings, which featured a nasty four-seam fastball and curveball combination. And then there's Emilio Pagán, who has established himself as a reliable option in the ninth inning.
"They have a lot of guys that throw really hard, and they're all different in their own right, which makes it difficult with how quick they are to the plate," A's outfielder Mark Canha said. "Trying to have a plan for each guy, you're just spinning your wheels. You just have to go back to your foundation and grind out at-bats. We just didn't have enough grounders get through or base hits with baserunners on."
As the run continues, making tough decisions will be part of the Rays' DNA. They'll have tough decisions when mapping out their 25-man roster for the AL Division Series against the Astros, and they'll create some more conversations once they release the lineups against Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. But that is just how Tampa Bay does things, and it's what the Rays believe is going to give them their best chance against Houston.
"There are certain lineups that you throw out seven or eight guys out there every single night and that's who you've got," said Rays manager Kevin Cash. "We're not built that way. The reason we were successful this year was by being versatile. We use the phrase 'buy-in' quite a bit, and it is tough, because Ji-Man Choi has meant so much to our club. And to not be in the starting lineup, players can conceive that as us not wanting them to play, and that's not the case. We're going to utilize every matchup we can to put it in our advantage."