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For the 2019 Rays, ‘it’s all about the ride’

John Romano: How to think about a team that was everything Tampa Bay could ask for, except good enough Thursday night.
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi (26) walks from the field after striking out swinging to end the game against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the American League Division Series Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019 in Houston. Houston Astros defeated the Rays 6-1. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi (26) walks from the field after striking out swinging to end the game against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the American League Division Series Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019 in Houston. Houston Astros defeated the Rays 6-1. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Oct. 11, 2019
Updated Oct. 11, 2019

HOUSTON — By now, the bats have been put in storage along with the aspirations.

The fellas ran out of miracles and tomorrows all at the same time, and this season is now interred with all the rest.

So, on the morning after, what do you say to a team that was not quite good enough?

In the case of the Tampa Bay Rays, I would suggest this:

Congratulations.

And thank you.

“It’s all about the ride,’’ Rays owner Stu Sternberg said, “and this has been a great ride.’’

Losing to the Astros 6-1 in Game 5 of the American League Division Series Thursday night may not have been inevitable, but it was more likely than not. For a team that lives in the cheapest house on the block and is forever playing with everyone else’s hand-me-downs, just making the postseason was longshot enough.

“We won a ton, accomplished a lot surprised a lot of people, but obviously came up short tonight,’’ said centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier. “We’re sad it’s over, but we accomplished so much together. I’ll remember this season for the rest of my life, I’m truly thankful for it.’’

When it was over, when Ji-Man Choi struck out to end it, on-deck hitter Travis d’Arnaud slowly walked to the dugout and leaned against the rail to watch the Houston celebration. A half dozen other players stood on the top dugout step for a minute or two, but slowly drifted away. Finally, infielder Joey Wendle was the only one remaining.

“Looking at them, I was thinking that could have been us and that’s where we want to be next season,’’ Wendle said. “When I think back on this season, I’m only going to remember the fun we had. There’s not a lot I would trade in place of this season.’’

Keep in mind that this morning’s obituary bears no resemblance to the Lightning collapse that arrived more abruptly six months ago. These Rays had none of the advantages, award-winners or expectations that the Lightning took into the playoffs.

So there is no shame in suggesting the Rays were not good enough.

Especially when you consider they were definitely smart enough.

They won more games per dollar spent than any team in the majors. And it wasn’t really close. For instance, Tampa Bay’s front office outsmarted the world champion Red Sox who had a $229 million payroll and won 84 games. The Rays had the league’s lowest payroll at $63 million and won 96.

And this group of Rays were also tough enough.

Who would have imagined the Rays could flirt with 100 victories when Blake Snell had elbow surgery and won only six games? That doesn’t include months-long injuries a half-dozen others. The Rays had to tread water for months before going 20-8 down the stretch and winning three elimination games before Thursday night.

Not to mention, the 2019 Tampa Bay Rays were darn sure entertaining enough.

How could you not love the Little Leaguer exuberance of shortstop Willy Adames, or the super hero-like appearance of d’Arnaud? How could you not enjoy a September stretch of extra-inning games and walk-off victories at Tropicana Field?

So, yeah, the 2019 Rays were smart, tough and fun.

They just weren’t good enough.

That was never more obvious than Thursday night. While the Rays had one of the most impressive pitching staffs, from top to bottom, in the league, they had no one who could compare to Gerrit Cole in 2019. He wasn’t quite as dominant as his Game 2 performance, but that’s just a matter of degree.

Once the Astros jumped on Tyler Glasnow for four runs in the first, the rest of the game felt like re-watching yesterday’s news.

Oh, the Rays bullpen did well enough to keep most people from changing the channel, but there was never any real sense that the hitters would break through against Cole. The entire game seemed to hinge on the possibility that the Rays might get a shot at the Houston bullpen while the score was still close.

“Disappointed? Yes, but no regrets,’’ said infielder Matt Duffy. “We believed we had a team that could keep winning, but baseball doesn’t always work that way.’’

There is a reason Houston won a major league-high 107 games. They have a team of All-Stars who were partially homegrown, but also supplemented with barrels of cash. That three-man rotation of Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke make $72.5 million a year, which is more than the Rays 25-man roster.

While the Astros were still celebrating on the field, the Rays were saying their goodbyes in the clubhouse.

No tears. No anger. Just a lot of hugs with the sense that something special had just ended.

“I’m going to miss these guys a ton, there’s no doubt about that,’’ Kiermaier said. “But there’s bright things to come in the future for this team.’’

In Tampa Bay, the season is over and in the books.

And perhaps a small part is still in your heart.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes

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