ST. PETERSBURG — It took the first two innings of action and a bucket of Rays runs, but 32,251 baseball fans came through Monday to fill Tropicana Field for Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Astros.
“The crowd was tremendous,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “Thank the bay area fans. It was awesome.”
The Rays were buried in a 2-0 hole in the series. The deficit, along with an inconveniently scheduled 1:05 p.m. first pitch, did little to set Rays fans up for success.
Despite the hurdles, the crowd persisted.
Dasean Thomas, a 25-year-old Rays fan from St. Petersburg, said city traffic made it difficult to get to the ballpark on time. It took him 30 minutes to drive the short 13 blocks to Tropicana Field. Thomas couldn’t get into the Trop until nearly 2 p.m. Closed parking lots presented another roadblock, delaying fans’ entry into the ballpark by as much as 45 minutes.
The Rays announced rosters and opening lineups to a warm, but not yet electric, crowd 20 minutes ahead of first pitch.
Fans waved yellow rally towels, which they were handed as they walked in the gates, and Charlie Morton gave them something to cheer for right away when he got Astros outfielder George Springer to ground out on the first pitch of the game.
Through the first inning, fans slowly filtered into the stadium. Still, the Trop needed a spark.
Kevin Kiermaier helped with a three-run home run in the second inning, but it was Ji-Man Choi who really ignited a playoff atmosphere.
With his solo shot in the third inning, Choi gave the Rays a 4-1 lead and sent a nearly-full Trop into a frenzy.
“Seeing everyone with the towels and every fan through every pitch, it was insane,” Kiermaier said. “That’s something that I’ve never experienced before.”
William Tilford, 27, made the two-hour drive from his home in St. Cloud to attend his sixth Rays game of the season. Seated in Section 324, Tilford was thankful to have the upper deck of the Trop re-opened.
“It’s really nice to actually see people here,” Tilford said.
Tilford normally sits in the rightfield corner of the lower bowl. On Monday, he opted for the $40 seats.
“Especially for the playoffs, I’m really happy with my seats,” he said.
Fans came from across Tampa Bay for playoff baseball, but very few faced a longer commute than the Byrds. The family of four made a 13-hour drive from Robbins, Tenn., to vacation at St. Pete Beach, and they were lucky to have their fall break overlap with ALDS action.
“Our plan was to do a tour (of Tropicana Field) because I wasn’t sure there would be a game,” said Joni Byrd, who took in the playoff atmosphere with husband Wade and sons Jackson and Jacob.
As the Rays poured it on, the crowd got louder. Chants of “Ji-Man Choi” broke out every time the first baseman stepped up to the plate. The roar of cowbells took over until Colin Poche recorded the last out in a 10-3 win.
Even outfielder Tommy Pham, who has spoken out about the Rays’ regular-season attendance woes in the past, couldn’t help but grin when asked what he thought about Monday’s turnout.
“(It’s) about time.”