HOUSTON — Throughout this season, the Rays have had to deal with adversity, frustration and disappointment. They felt them again Thursday night in Cleveland, letting a late-inning lead slip away — and their first chance to clinch a playoff berth with it.
But, like so many other times, they bounced right back, beating the American League-best Astros 7-3 Friday to win their way into the playoffs, then launched into a wet and wild celebration, spraying champagne and pouring beer.
“Pretty proud moment,” manager Kevin Cash said from the edge of the clubhouse party. “They’ve come to the ballpark consistent every day. They’ve withstood some bad news, some bad performances. But they’ve come out on top with some really good performances just to stay afloat here. So, just a credit to a lot of people.”
The Rays joined the Blue Jays, then later were joined by the Mariners to complete the three-team AL wild-card field. Still to be determined over the final five days of the season is the seeding, with a considerable benefit to finishing on top: hosting one of the best-of-three, one-site Wild Card Series next weekend. The second wild-card team plays at the first, with the third at the AL Central champion Guardians.
The Jays (88-69) are on top, with the Mariners (86-70) 1-1/2 back and the Rays (86-71) 1/2 game behind them. The Rays hold the tiebreaker over both.
The Rays were somewhat reserved when leftfielder Randy Arozarena caught the final out, going through the usual postgame line of high-fives and fist bumps. They gathered in the dugout to pull on playoff T-shirts and posed for a team photo on the field.
The players then headed into the clubhouse, where Cash addressed them, saying he told the team “basically how proud that they should be of themselves, withstanding some ups and downs.”
“Respectfully, all teams go through it,” he said. “I’m biased. I feel like we’ve gone through it more than our share. We’re getting healthy. And the goal now is to do everything we can to be doing this (again) in a week.”
Then they started the party, pulling on the goggles, turning up the music and running around the room as they raced through the 200 bottles of champagne and 60 cases of beer (30 Bud, 30 Bud Light).
“It’s definitely a celebration, that’s for sure,” said Drew Rasmussen, who gave the Rays a strong start. “And it’s well deserved by everyone in that room.”
The Rays were in position to clinch the playoff berth on Thursday, with the Orioles losing in the afternoon. All they needed was a win over Cleveland and they were in. They were on their way, taking a 1-0 lead into the eighth inning but lost as the Guardians rallied and won 2-1, making for a long, quiet flight to Houston.
The Rays had two chances to get in Friday, One was a loss by the Orioles, whose game started 65 minutes earlier. But Baltimore beat the Yankees 2-1, the game ending as the Rays were hitting in the top of the eighth. So the Rays had to beat the Astros to pop bottles, and they took charge pretty much from the start.
“I don’t think the question was if we would get the job done at some point, but it’s better to get it done as fast as possible,” Rasmussen said. “We had the opportunity (Thursday), and we played a really tough game. On on top of it, we had late-night travel.
“To see the offense really come out and perform the way they did was absolutely incredible. There’s a lot of excitement going into the postseason now. And we’re officially in, so we get the opportunity to celebrate and have fun. It’s been incredible.”
The Rays took a 1-0 lead in the first, sparked by a leadoff walk by Yandy Diaz, who had a big night in his return to the lineup for the first time since Sept. 19. Diaz and Randy Arozarena drew walks, and Harold Ramirez delivered a two-out RBI single.
The Astros tied it with a homer by Alex Bregman off Rasmussen, then took a 2-1 lead in the fourth when Manuel Margot had trouble with two balls hit to rightfield.
But the Rays came roaring back.
They got two runs in the fifth when Diaz (who had three hits) singled, Arozarena tripled and Franco singled to make it 3-2. They added three more in the sixth when Francisco Mejia singled, Jose Siri doubled in one run and Diaz doubled in two more.
Rasmussen delivered a dazzling start, working seven strong innings, while throwing only 73 pitches.
The Rays dealt with extensive injuries (30 players sidelined 41 times) and inconsistent performances during a season that seemed, at several points, to be headed to a disappointing ending.
Instead, they are headed to the postseason for the fourth straight season and eighth in 15, starting with their unexpected 2008 run.
This is the fourth time they earned their way in as a wild-card team, and in the third different format. In 2011 they won the sole wild-card spot (thanks to Game 162). In 2013 and 2019 they were the second wild-card and won a one-game playoff on the road (at Cleveland and at Oakland). This year, it is a three-team field with best-of-three playoff series all at one site.
“I think it’s the first step,” starter Tyler Glasnow said. ”I hope we can do this a bunch more times.”
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