Winning record gives Rays something to hold onto

Jake Bauers makes a diving catch of a Nick Martini fly ball in the sixth inning against the A's on Sept. 16, 2018, (JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times)
Jake Bauers makes a diving catch of a Nick Martini fly ball in the sixth inning against the A's on Sept. 16, 2018, (JAMES BORCHUCK | Times)
Published Sept. 17, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays, barring a total collapse by the A's or Yankees, are not going to post enough victories to make it into the playoffs.

But after hanging on to the beat the A's again Sunday, 5-4, they insured that for the first time since 2013 they will finish with a winning record.

That their 82nd W turned quickly from laugher to edge-of-your-seat thriller was only fitting. Consider the drama of a season in which the Rays at times looked like both the worst team in the majors and the best, remade their roster and reshaped the game itself with their innovative pitching plan, interesting every day, maybe more than any other team.

It was clear Sunday that the Rays didn't want to consider a winning season as a success, that they have higher goals.

And certainly not as something to celebrate, as when they won 70 for the first time in 2004 (in their seventh season) and then-manager Lou Piniella ordered a clubhouse champagne toast.
But it is something.

In a season where few thought the Rays would win many after dumping or dealing pretty much every veteran, weathering a frigid 1-8 and 4-13 start, enduring an extensive run of injuries, implementing and executing the opener pitching plan, and transitioning to a young core of players, it was an achievement worth noting.

"You've got to be proud of what's taken place to this point, and we are,'' fourth-year manager Kevin Cash said.

"It's an accomplishment. We're not going to settle for just the feel-good story. I think we've kind of laid the groundwork this year in a lot of good ways to build something, look forward to something, going into the offseason and then obviously next year.

"You want to win as many games as possible. The way these guys have come up here, approached playing at the major-league level and kind of learning on the job, learning on the fly, and doing it together has been really beneficial. And it will be beneficial for years to come for us.''

Obviously, they would like to do more this season.

At 82-66 with 14 games left (10 against the struggling Rangers and Blue Jays, four with the Yankees), they have a reasonable shot at 90 wins, maybe more.

Heck, had they played better and pulled out Friday's game rather than losing 2-1 in 10 innings and made it a weekend sweep, they would be five games out and we'd be talking now about making a realistic run at the final American League playoff spot. Instead, they're still seven back of the A's, and 8½ of the Yankees, needing more help than they can probably get.

Also, in a way, the Rays were a victim of circumstance, with the Red Sox rolling out a 100-plus win season, leaving them, the Yankees and the rest of the East playing for second place from the start.

Consider that since the second wild card was introduced in 2012, only three teams have won 89 games and not gotten in — the 2012 Angels (89), 2012 Rays (90) and 2013 Rangers (91, after losing in Game 163 to the Rays).

"There's no way around it — we've had a good year,'' said slugger C.J. Cron. "It's just that the guys in front of us are having an exceptionally good year. … Most years this would be good enough for a playoff spot. At the end of the day, all you can do is take care of your own business. And, unfortunately, (the losses) early in the year are going to come back and bite us if we can't get this done. But, we've been playing really good and have seen strides from the whole team. There's still 14 games left, so there's still time, and we're going to give it our all."

Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, the most veteran Ray and the only active link (and barely at that) to their last playoff team in 2013, said he isn't much for moral victories or what-if scenarios.

But, maybe so in this case. "I'm proud of the guys in this room,'' he said. "Everyone has handled their business from day one, and there's been a lot of ups and downs.''

Third baseman Matt Duffy, among those frustrated by the offseason and spring roster renovation, said they have reason to feel good about how they're ending up: "To be where we're at now, we're definitely pleasantly surprised and proud of ourselves."

The trade-off for being disappointed in not doing better this year is the excitement about where they springboard from a winning record to next.

Cash has his ideas.

"This organization has kind of been very fortunate over the last decade in playing in a lot of playoff games,'' he said. "We want to get back to that. We've had a little bit of a lull here recently. And these guys give you some positive thoughts like that's on the horizon.''