HOUSTON — The Rays spent much of the last two weeks celebrating.
They sprayed champagne in Toronto when they clinched their first playoff berth in six years, then again in Oakland when the won the AL wild-card game. After losing the first two games of the AL division series to Astros, they won Games 3 and 4 at home, reviving their hopes and potentially their fractured fanbase, by forcing a fifth and deciding game.
They talked of how much they loved playing together and each other, and were determined to keep going.
But Thursday, it all came to quiet end in a 6-1 loss to an Astros team that looked very much like the majors’ best.
“This is a bitter ending, in a sense, because no one wanted to stop this thing we had going,'' centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. ”But there’s just too much to be proud about though.''
A number of Rays players lingered in the visiting dugout lingered to watch the Astros celebrate. Manager Kevin Cash said he thanked the team and the staff after the game.
“What an impressive run,’’ he said. “They were a fun team to be around, fun team to watch for six and a half months. Can't deny the fact that we came up short. You get a taste of this, you want to keep going.’’
A terrible start by Tyler Glasnow put the Rays in a 4-0 hole in the first inning. Gerrit Cole shut them down and nearly out for the second time in the series. And the Astros added on with two homers off Emilio Pagan in the eighth.
“We kind of got out-powered,’’ Cash said. “Out-powered on the mound and obviously at the plate.’’
Rather than go on to face the Yankees in the AL Championship Series, they are headed home Friday morning.
“It’s disappointing,’’ shortstop Willy Adames said. “We didn’t want to lose. We wanted to keep playing. We wanted to go to New York.’’
But when the disappointment fades they are likely to appreciate what they accomplished in what will go down as one of their best seasons.
“This is a great team, and we lost to a great team,’’ general manager Erik Neander said. “Surely some heads will be down tonight but they’ll quickly lift and we’ll be as proud as can be for the accomplishments and moments we’ve experienced over the course of this season. I love these guys and couldn’t be more proud of what they accomplished.’’
They melded a young core, a few key veterans and some helpful in-season additions to win 99 games total, including 96 in the regular season, one shy of the franchise record, and feel they are just at the start of a good run.
“We got to the party a little earlier than some might have thought,’’ principal owner Stuart Sternberg said in a clubhouse that was more about congratulations for a good season. “And the nice thing is we get to take the experience of dealing with the injuries we did, beating Cleveland three straight, beating Boston and beating the Yankees when we needed to, going up to Toronto and winning when we had to, going to the wild-card game and winning that game, coming back here after down 2-0.
“You don’t want it to end like this, but if it is you couldn’t write a better script for how it looks for 2020 and ‘21.’’
All the confidence and the momentum the Rays brought back to Houston from their thrilling wins at home disappeared quickly Thursday.
Glasnow allowed a hit to the first Astros batter, George Springer, who singled. Then the second, Michael Brantley, who singled. Then the third, Jose Altuve, who singled in one run. And then the fourth, Alex Bregman, who doubled in two more.
And that was all in the first 10 pitches he threw. After getting one out, Glasnow allowed a fifth hit, a single to Yuli Gurriel, that made it 4-0.
If it seemed like the Astros hitters knew what was coming, they kind of did. Glasnow said after the game it was “relatively obvious” he was tipping his pitches, specifically whether it was a fastball or curveball.
That he got the Rays through the first and into the third wasn’t of much consolation, as the damage was done.
“I think they had a really good approach,’’ Cash said. “It happened quick. Just really didn’t allow him to settle in. And that’s what their offense is capable of doing. We’ve done such a good job, I felt, leading into Game 5 of kind of controlling the early top of their lineup. You know they’re going to get their hits, every once in awhile they’re going to get the home runs, but they just pieced together a tremendous inning against a really good pitcher.’’
"That’s probably the frustrating part,'' Glasnow said. "I felt really good. Timing and everything felt great. There were some pitches I left over (the plate), and they got to them.''
Worse, the Rays couldn’t do enough against Cole to make up for it.
They got one back when Eric Sogard knocked the first pitch he saw over the right-field fence leading off the second.
As Cash ran through his bullpen to keep it close, the Rays had hopes of another one of their dramatic comebacks. “I think we all did,’’ Cash said. “And up there until the eighth inning, I think we gave everybody a reason to believe that.’’
But they ended up getting Coled for the second time this series.
In Game 2, Cole, who led the AL with a 2.50 ERA and the majors with 326 strikeouts, threw 7⅔ shutout innings while striking 15 and walking just one.
Thursday, he worked eight dazzling and dominating innings, allowing only the one run and two hits while striking out 10.
“Cole was really, really tough tonight,’’ Adames said. “I don’t know if anyone can get better than that.’’
In a way, the Rays got a lot further than many expected, leading to the shock the world mantra they carried.
In another, they were frustrated to not still be playing.
"We’re sad it’s over,'' Kiermaier said. "But we accomplished so much collectively as a unit, and that’s what it’s all about.''
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.