Rays have a clear No. 1 goal, and good reasons for it

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have a pretty clear idea of what they want to accomplish over the final four weeks of the season.

“We don’t want to go to the wild-card (game),” starter Shane McClanahan said. “We’re the best team in the AL for a reason, I feel like. And we’re going to keep winning.

“So our only goal is to win the AL East and be the No. 1 seed.”

They seem to be in pretty good shape, heading into play Saturday with a 6 ½-game lead over the Yankees in the division race, and 5 ½ ahead of the Astros for the league’s best record, with 27 to play. Per the fangraphs.com computers (which simulate remaining games), the Rays have an 87.3 percent chance to win the American League East, to go along with a 99.9 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The division title is perennially a goal, but after winning it in last year’s abbreviated season and reaching the World Series, it seemed of even higher priority.

General manager Erik Neander said as much in explaining why the Rays made the surprising July 22 trade to send pitching prospects Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman to Minnesota for DH Nelson Cruz — and take on about $5 million in salary — while a game behind the Red Sox at the time.

“You could envision good things happening with this group down the stretch,” Neander said. “Trying to do we can win the division, do it responsibly — but this group has put itself in a good position to make that push — and to give up some really good talent to do it.”

While just making the playoffs for a third straight season would be an accomplishment — the first time in franchise history — there are significant benefits for the Rays to finish on top.

With Major League Baseball returning this year to the standard postseason format (after 2020′s expanded field), the Rays want no part of a one-game wild-card matchup (even though they’ve won it twice before) with the risk of the whole season being lost on one bad play, break or umpire’s call.

Plus, the wild-card game is set for Oct. 5, two days after the season finale. As East champs, the Rays would get three full days off before starting best-of-five division series play on Oct. 7, which would provide a much welcomed break to rest and properly set up their pitching — both starters and relievers, who seem likely to carry a heavy postseason load. (Plus, it also will work to the Rays’ advantage with MLB going back to having scheduled off days during postseason series, as opposed to last year’s condensed format.)

With one of the top two records, the Rays would have homefield advantage in the first round. With the best record, they would have the added benefit of facing the wild-card winner — as of now, Yankees or Red Sox — that likely just used its best starter. (The other matchup is likely White Sox-Astros.)

Ideally, the Rays will take advantage of what seems to be a favorable schedule over the next three weeks, with 11 games against the sub-.500 Twins, Tigers and Marlins. (They also have three at the Red Sox and six with the Blue Jays.) If not, their final week could be stressful, playing at the Astros and Yankees, and with a lot on the line.

Rays rumblings

Congrats to 67-year-old Bill Evers, the longtime Rays minor-league manager and coach, who has decided this season as a Twins coach will be his last, wrapping up a 40-plus year career in pro baseball. … Given strict COVID-19 protocols for going in and out of Canada, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Rays send pitchers who won’t be used and any injured players home after the Detroit series in the middle of the next road trip. … ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale, arguably the most prominent Rays fans, shared his frustration over low attendance at the Trop with his 866,500,000 Twitter followers with a video and post from Friday’s game, which drew 8,864: “EMBARRASSING / where r the baseball fans in the Tampa area. Does anyone look at the standings ? Ppl they r in 1st place ahead of the @Yankees & @RedSox ! It is so S-A-D !” He added another saying he was “fed up” with excuses and for those not showing up to “Take these alibis & u know where to shove them.” ... Total attendance for the Monday-Thursday four-game series against the contending Red Sox was 29,352; less than five individual games elsewhere in that span and only a few thousand more than the Twins drew on Tuesday for the Cubs. … Bally Sports Sun said Wednesday’s game was its most watched regular-season game in four years and “drove our network to a #1 in prime rank locally,” and that its August ratings were the highest in four years. … Though manager Alex Cora claimed to not know why Red Sox personnel were measuring the Trop mound after Wednesday’s game and before Thursday’s, their question was if it was too high. It is not. ... The Rays, per fangraphs.com, went into the weekend with the toughest remaining schedule of AL postseason contenders and third overall. … Baseball America has Astros pitcher Luis Garcia the favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year, with the Rays’ McClanahan second, outfielder Randy Arozarena among five candidates “on the cusp” and Wander Franco, who has played only 56 games, “charging hard.” … New Rays reliever David Robertson has a charity that helps with disaster relief and veterans; see highsocksforhope.org. … Also, reliever J.P. Feyereisen has teamed with vs-cancer.org to raise funds for the fight against pediatric brain cancer. … MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds had a good breakdown comparing Franco to Indians All-Star (and fellow Bani, Dominican Republic, product) Jose Ramirez, but with more power at the start of his career. … First base coach Ozzie Timmons switched to No. 40 so Robertson could have the No. 30 he wore with the Yankees, White Sox and Phillies. … Seminole native and outfielder Brett Phillips’ line of T-shirts will be available starting noon Monday at baseballisfun35.com; in the meanwhile he recently was sporting what he called “a pretty accurate” tank top he got as a gift: “World’s Okayest Baseball Player.” … A mock draft for a mock expansion to Nashville and Montreal done by The Athletic had the Rays losing infielder Joey Wendle (ninth pick) and lefty Josh Fleming (42nd).

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