OAKLAND, Calif. — The Rays insisted they weren’t nervous, intimidated or overwhelmed by the pomp or the circumstance of playing their first postseason game since 2013, and the first in many of their careers, saying they were ready.
Manager Kevin Cash said it during a relaxed chat in his office midafternoon Wednesday.
Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier promised it during his pregame interview room segment.
And then they went out and showed it, and in powerful style, beating the A’s 5-1 in the AL wild-card game and moving on to a division series matchup with the Astros starting Friday in Houston.
Yandy Diaz, who wasn’t expected to be in the lineup and until the past week or so was a question to play again this season, homered to lead off the game and again in the third. Avisail Garcia hit a two-run homer in the second. Tommy Pham added a solo shot in the fifth.
Meanwhile, Charlie Morton gave the Rays five good enough innings, Diego Castillo an impressive two, then Nick Anderson and former A’s reliever Emilio Pagan closed it out.
"Just happy as can be that these guys have a chance to keep on going,'' GM Erik Neander said on the fringe of the wet and wild clubhouse celebration. "It’s a helluva group. These guys are really special. ''
Just like the Rays weren’t affected by the stage, the spotlight and the record crowd of 54,005 for a wild-card game, they insist they’ll be up to the challenge of playing the Astros, who won a majors-most 107 games and boast an aces-high rotation that starts with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. The Rays won the season series 4-3.
“Look, they’re better than us. Their pitching is better, their hitting is better,’’ Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said before Wednesday’s game. “But we find a way to just keep it close. If we were a team that had to hit the ball and win games 8-6, I wouldn’t be saying this. But I feel pretty strong that over a five- or seven-game series we’re going to be involved in a bunch of one-run, two-run games, and those games you can be on either side of it.’’
Further, Sternberg said, “I really do feel if this team plays to its fullest we can beat any of the teams out there. Doesn’t mean it’s easy, doesn’t mean we’re not going to have some good fortune. “If we pitch the ball like we’re supposed to, we’re smart on the basepaths and we’re able to have some solid at-bats, especially getting past this game, we can beat either or both of those other teams we’re going to face, whoever they might be, until we get to the (World) Series.’’
Some of what the Rays did Wednesday was unexpected.
As a team, they became just the third in postseason history to hit four home runs in a winner-take-all game, joining the 2004 Red Sox (ALCS Game 7) and 1956 Yankees (World Series Game 7).
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And just the second time in the franchise’s five postseason trips to hit four homers in a game, matching their efforts in Game 3 of the 2008 ALCS against Boston.
Individually, Diaz became the first leadoff hitter in MLB history to homer in each of his first two at-bats of a single postseason.
And he became the fifth Ray to hit two homers in a playoff game. Evan Longoria did it in Game 1 of the 2008 ALDS against the White Sox, B.J. Upton in Game 4 of the same series, Kelly Shoppach in Game 1 of the 2011 ALDS against Texas and Desmond Jennings in Game 3 of that same series.
Diaz said he just welcomed the opportunity to be part of it.
"I didn’t expect this at all to be honest,'' he said via team translator Manny Navarro. "But I did everything in my power to help out this team and luckily I came out with two home runs.''
When Diaz hit the first homer, he turned around and pointed to the Rays dugout, his way of acknowledging the moment.
"Felt really happy,'' he said. "Looking at them and looking at everybody so excited and happy it makes me happy. I was glad I was able to provide for the team.''
Garcia’s homer was a massive shot, launching the high fastball he was looking for from Oakland starter Sean Manaea 437 feet at an exit velocity of 115.2 mph, highest for a Rays player since the 2015 launch of Statcast.
But how they did it was somewhat typical Rays, doing things that seem unusual, unorthodox, odd and seemingly risky.
Rays being Rays, you might say.
So maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised when they made the unexpected and seemingly risky move not to just start Diaz but to play him at first base.
So what that he just returned to active duty in Sunday’s season finale after missing more than two months with a fractured left foot. That up until the past two weeks he didn’t look like he would make it back this season. And that when he played in a couple of instructional league games, he only hit, and when he did take ground balls at the Trop, it was at third base.
None of that deterred the Rays, and they once again proved right.
"I don’t know if we expected that type of performance,'' Cash said. "He made us look a lot smarter than we are.''
After the Rays clinched their first playoff berth since 2013 on Friday in Toronto, Cash gave them a quick rousing, and a bit profane, speech about how this year they were indeed “good enough” to be in the five-team AL playoff field.
Wednesday, he kept it shorter and, as he proudly pointed out, "no cuss words,'' telling the players, "We got in Friday, now we’re really in.''
And with that, the party started again, as they were spraying champagne, pouring beer and lighting cigars.
"It’s an incredible feeling,'' Kiermaier said. "We’re having so much fun and we want to keep it going.''
Morton’s outing wasn’t his most impressive, as he allowed baserunners in each of his five innings, but it was effective as he got the outs when he needed them, allowing only one unearned run. The 35-year-old right-hander walked three and struck out four while throwing 94 pitches, 56 for strikes.
Morton loaded the bases in the first on a single and two walks, but he got Jurickson Profar to fly out. He got double-play grounders to escape the second and the fifth. He allowed the one run in a messy sequence in the third when rookie second baseman Mike Brosseau and first baseman Diaz combined for a three-base error, then Ramon Laureano delivered a sac fly But Morton got through the middle of the Oakland order, getting Matt Chapman to ground out, walking Matt Olson and striking out Mark Canha to keep it there.
And he got the biggest out in the fourth. The A’s had two on and two outs with Marcus Semien, their MVP candidate, at the plate, but Morton got him to ground out.
"When the first inning ended, I kind of said to myself, we were fortunate to have Charlie Morton on the mound. We get the 1-0 lead. A young pitcher in that situation, that environment, you just wonder how he’s going to be able to handle that,'' Cash said.
"But Charlie, been there, done that, his veteran, his experience, I think allowed that. And I would still say, I don’t think Charlie was at his best today, but he certainly made his best pitches when they counted the most.'''
So did the hitters building the 5-1 lead.
"We never give up,'' Garcia said. "This team is special.''
The bullpen took it from there, with Pagan closing out a win he admitted he expected to happen.
"This team has been through so much all season,'' Pagan said. "Every team goes through a lot. But we’ve been battle tested. We’ve been playing playoff games for the last two months. Tonight, other than the 54000 strong, it felt like another game we’ve been playing for a long time.''
'The Rays will set their pitching plans on the flight to Houston, but they are likely to start Tyler Glasnow on Friday and Blake Snell on Saturday to open the division series,
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.
Rays-Astros series schedule
Game 1: Friday: Tampa Bay at Houston, 2 p.m. (FS1)
Game 2: Saturday: Tampa Bay at Houston, 9 p.m. (FS1)
Game 3: Monday: Houston at Tampa Bay, TBD (MLBN/FS1)
*Game 4: Tuesday: Houston at Tampa Bay, TBD (FS1)
*Game 5: Oct. 10: Tampa Bay at Houston, TBD (FS1)
* if necessary