The preference would have been for champagne, of course, sprayed wildly around the room. Instead, the Rays gathered in the quiet Tropicana Field clubhouse after the 4-3 playoffs- and season-ending loss, sipping Charbay and Johnny Walker Blue Label whiskey from small plastic cups.
They had done so earlier this season, on the April 6 flight to Chicago after they lost their first five games, manager Joe Maddon telling them they would finish as the best team ever to start that way.
With the season finally over Tuesday afternoon, Maddon stepped in front of them again to make another toast, joking about how prophetic he turned out to be. And amid the frustrated faces, the blank stares and some moist eyes, they realized as they raised their cups how amazingly much they actually accomplished.
"It's hard to leave here upset," infielder Sean Rodriguez said. "What we did was nothing short of a miracle."
The pain of being eliminated — in just four games, in front of their home (though not sold-out) crowd, by the Rangers for a second straight year — was evident throughout the clubhouse, strewn with equipment bags for the trip back to Texas they would not be making.
"Heartbreaking," ace pitcher James Shields said. "Just heartbreaking. … It just kind of came to a crashing halt there, and that's a shame."
"I'm kind of disgusted," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "It's just sad it had to end this way."
Having come back from what became an 0-6 then 1-8 start, from nine games out of the wild card on Sept. 4, from seven runs down in the eighth inning of Game 162, winning the AL wild card in the wildest way possible, the Rays felt certain they were destined to keep playing for a while.
"Nobody likes to go home," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "When you come in here after a game like today when you know the season is over and you've got to pack up your locker and say bye to everybody for the winter, it's just not a good feeling."
The end, in a way, came fittingly, with the Rays struggling for offense much of the afternoon then trying for another dramatic comeback and falling just short.
Down 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 — primarily due to Adrian Beltre having the seventh three-homer game in postseason history — the Rays closed to 4-3 in the ninth and had the tying run on first with one out. But Matt Joyce popped up and Desmond Jennings hit a ground ball that forced pinch-runner Elliot Johnson at second to extinguish their final hope.
"We felt like 'til the very end we were going to pull it out," DH Johnny Damon said. "We just didn't want our Cinderella ride to be over yet."
"I guess," Longoria said, "that was our ninth life."
After winning the opener in Texas, the Rays seemed to be positioned well, but then they lost three straight — by a total of four runs. The Rangers shut down the Rays' key hitters — Upton and Longoria were 0-for-13 with nine strikeouts in Games 3 and 4 — and flexed just enough muscle.
"We just didn't see this early exit coming," Upton said. "We didn't think they could beat us twice at home."
Maddon acknowledged that it felt like a premature ending but said he was filled with pride given what they did and how they did it: becoming the first AL team to make the postseason after starting 0-6, and the first in the majors to do so after being nine games out in September, winning 91 games along the way despite all the players they lost from last year's team.
"I do believe we could have gone further," Maddon said, "but I'm really pleased with where our players took us this year."
Executive vice president Andrew Friedman was similarly conflicted.
"In the moment, it's extremely painful for all of us," he said. "We have such an amazing group of guys with such resolve, with such fight all year long. Nine innings every night; we saw it in these last two games. It's a really special group to be a part of. I'm sure once we get out of the moment we'll reflect back and really appreciate what we accomplished. But being in the moment, it's really difficult to do that."
As they gathered in the clubhouse for the last time, they listened to principal owner Stuart Sternberg thank them for the efforts, then to Maddon remind them of their accomplishments.
"We did a lot of things that weren't expected of us, with a lot less than most," Longoria said. "And that's something we could be pretty proud of."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]