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As storm clears, Rays focus turns back to baseball

Tropicana Field which does not appear to have any damage after Hurricane Irma in St. Petersburg Monday morning (09/11/17). DIRK SHADD   |   Times

Tropicana Field which does not appear to have any damage after Hurricane Irma in St. Petersburg Monday morning (09/11/17). DIRK SHADD | Times

NEW YORK — The Rays had a lot to unsettled about on Monday, opening what was supposed to a key series against the wild-card leading Yankees at Tropicana Field instead as the "home" team in a Mets stadium they were unfamiliar with in front of a crowd that was decidedly backing the visitors who came from just 10 miles away.

But they had a lot more important things to be relieved about, principally that with Hurricane Irma largely sparing the Tampa Bay area, their houses, families and friends all said to be safe.

Plus, they are likely to head home after Wednesday's game to host the Red Sox as planned this weekend at the Trop.

A final decision is expected today, but after determining there was no major damage or flooding at the Trop and talking with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman about staffing and public safety concerns, Rays president Brian Auld said he was "optimistic" the team will be able to play the Sox as planned starting Friday. The biggest hurdle may be whether traffic lights in the area are back on line.

"We got pretty lucky in our area," said Rays veteran third baseman Evan Longoria. "All in all, we escaped what could have been a catastrophe."

Though the Rays for the most part said what they were supposed to over the weekend in Boston about focusing on baseball once the game started, it was obvious they were distracted by concerns about the storm. Whether that played a factor in the two lopsided losses is certainly worth wondering.

"It seemed like it was a little frantic mode in here for the last couple of days," rightfielder Steven Souza Jr. said. "Some guys were talking about whether the Trop was going to make it. There were some different caliber of thoughts going on. ... We were just brainstorming on what could possibly happen —if our cars were going to make it, if houses were going to be in the ocean. When those kinds of situations happen, crazy thoughts start running through your head."

Now, respectful of damage that happened elsewhere but relieved that the Tampa Bay area was not hit hard, they talked a lot Monday about re-focusing on baseball.

"There is a lot of tension that has been relieved and uneasiness that has kind of settled after three days," Longoria said. "It should be nice to go out and play a baseball game without that worry on your mind."

Plus they can go back to watching baseball again, too.

"We watched the Weather Channel non-stop," Longoria said. "I'm tired of watching the Hurricane Watch on TV. It's like Anchorman, like watching the panda for months and months."

The Rays are at critical point of staying in the chase for the last American League playoff spot, going into Monday's game, which was not complete at press time, 3 ½ games — and six teams — back of the second wild-card they once held, and with only 17 games left.

Having to play these three games with the Yankees having a considerable homefield advantage at Citi Field was not ideal, but an unfortunate result of a situation they couldn't really control. Between travel logistics and hotel space, Dodger Stadium was the only other option that worked logistically for this series.

"It's not what you would draw up ... a home game in New York against the Yankees in a wild card chase," Souza said. "We're just thankful to have a place to play right now."

Plus, Yankees manager Joe Girardi claimed, with a straight face, they didn't have that much of an advantage, even though it meant just a short drive over, they play at Citi Field annually (whereas the Rays haven't been here since 2009) and most of the crowd, taking advantage of $25 tickets, was behind them.

"We're still not in our home ballpark; we're built for our home ballpark," he said. "We probably play here in little more than the Rays have, but it seemed to me the best for both teams."

The Rays did rave about how much the Mets did to make them feel at home, from allowing them full use of the home clubhouse and facilities to playing their walkup music and scoreboard videos all the way down to little things like putting Tampa Bay logos on the placards above their lockers. Mets GM Sandy Alderson came down to the clubhouse Monday afternoon to make sure they had everything they needed.

There were a few different aspects to being the home team on the road, like adjusting their schedule since they took batting practice first, but the Rays tried to make the best of it, wearing their home white pants, though with blue jerseys, and batting last.

Still, all obviously was not normal.

Even though they were talking baseball again in the clubhouse, there also were comparing notes on reports they got from friends on the situation back home. (Longoria, for example, said his waterfront house in St. Petersburg didn't flood, his boat was in place, and the only real damage was a fallen tree).

And they know that after getting back hopefully on Wednesday night, there will be some cleaning up to do, and some public service to perform, manager Kevin Cash suggesting, "when we get back, let's do what we need to as an organization to help families and businesses alike that are in need. We can provide those roles."

But overall, even though they were in New York "hosting" the Yankees, they were in a lot better place than could have been.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays

As storm clears, Rays focus turns back to baseball 09/11/17 [Last modified: Monday, September 11, 2017 8:37pm]
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