ST. PETERSBURG — The path through the postseason will soon be right in front of the Rays.
Before they took the field Saturday night, they clinched the best record in the American League and the top seed for the playoffs thanks to an Oakland loss.
And by early Sunday evening, at the latest, they will know who they are playing in the best-of-three opening round that starts Tuesday at Tropicana Field. Will the narrative be:
A friends-as-foe matchup with the Blue Jays, managed by longtime Rays coach Charlie Montoyo?
Or games of raw emotion from recent rancor with rival Yankees?
Either way, there will be motivation from the past. Last Oct. 10 to be exact, back to a somber scene in a windowless room in downtown Houston.
As exciting as the Rays first foray into the playoffs in six years was, the frustration of losing in the fifth and final game of the division series to the Astros has been a driving force for many of them.
To get back.
And to get further.
"A lot of us are thinking back a year from now, and how much fun we were having, and coming up short,'' centerfielder and team leader Kevin Kiermaier said.
"We don’t want to feel that feeling again.''
That motivation manifests in different ways.
Some Rays said it hit them as soon as they walked into the Minute Maid Park clubhouse after the loss, and realized their season was over. "It definitely lit a fire in us,'' second baseman Brandon Lowe said.
Kiermaier said it fueled his off-season workouts, that “you’re thinking about that Game 5 loss and you want to get a couple of reps in or a run a couple extra sprints or little things like that.”
Shortstop Willy Adames felt it when they assembled in Port Charlotte in February.
"Everybody got to spring training with that mentality,'' Adames said. "That we’re going to win. We’re going to go to the playoffs. And we’re going to take revenge from last year.'’
Manager Kevin Cash, who didn’t unpack his equipment bag from Houston until needing a cap for a workout January, said the loss still bothers him.
"I don’t know if I am over it,'' he said. "We played so well and it was so exciting. You accept it; I don’t know if you ever get over it. You work so hard, and you want so much for the players to feel that success. Winning that Game 5 would’ve been pretty special.
"To get over it? Hopefully none of us have. You accept it and become better for it.''
Given that it was the first time in the playoffs for many of the Rays, as well as Cash and his coaches in their current roles, there were things to gain for having gone through it.
One was to know they were good enough to be there.
"It really showed us that we belonged,'' Lowe said. "It wasn’t something where we got in there and the Astros put up 15 (runs) and we lost in three games. We gave them a tough series. We won the wild-card game (in Oakland). ... I think that did a lot for us to understand we should be in the postseason and we can go a lot further.''
Another was to know how to handle the pressures of the higher stakes and national spotlight.
"Experiencing what it was like, and the nerves and stuff was good for me to see,'' said starter Tyler Glasnow. "I think it was like ‘I got to rise to the occasion,' and I go into it with maybe a little bit more confidence than I did last year.'’
A lot has happened since the Rays lost that series to the Astros.
Several key players were either traded (Emilio Pagan, Tommy Pham) or allowed to leave as free agents (Travis d’Arnaud, Avisail Garcia). Some that stayed (Colin Poche, Chaz Roe, Brendan McKay, Austin Meadows) were lost for much or all of this season with injuries.
And there was the massive disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with the game shut down for months, then an abbreviated season with playoffs expanded and re-formatted.
Adames is adamant that the Rays have carried the motivation through all of that.
"That’s why we’re in first place, because everybody got that hungry mentality like, let’s go get it,'' he said. "Let’s go in the division, let’s go to the World Series and let’s win at all. That’s why we’ve been so good this year. Hopefully we’re going to continue to do that and with the same mindset.''
There is history, in normal times anyway, to support notion that a team can use playoff failure as a springboard to success.
Nationals manager Davey Martinez, the former Rays bench coach, has seen it first hand. Most specifically as a coach on Joe Maddon’s staff with the Cubs, who were swept in the 2015 NL Championship Series and came back the next year to win it all.
"Absolutely,'' he said. “In ’15 we made the playoffs and the guys got that taste in their mouth. In ’16 they came back rip raring to go and wanted to get back there. We ended up winning the World Series. So, yeah, that does happen.”
Rays veteran starter and occasional philosopher Charlie Morton said the previous experience really is a life lesson.
"You go into Houston, you lose in five in Houston, and it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth,'' Morton said. "That’s just anytime you lose in the playoffs, you get eliminated, the feeling is similar because it’s a long season. And it takes a lot to get there. It takes a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of luck. And things have got to go your way. You’ve got to play really good baseball, you’ve got to remain tight as a group.
"And then you get eliminated and it’s just not fun. So like anything else in life when you experience the bad part of it, you don’t want to repeat that again. And there’s a similar sentiment with losing in the playoffs. Plus, you want to win. So, yeah, I would say that, like a lot of things, losing is motivation.''
No matter what the matchups, which could include a later round rematch with the Astros, the Rays will have plenty of sources of motivation. For all the success of reaching the playoffs for the sixth time in 13 seasons, with only three teams making it more often, there’s also this:
The Rays are winless in their last five playoff series. Though they’ve won the wild card game in 2013 and last year, they have lost four times in the best-of-five division series (2019, 2013, 2011, 2010), and in the 2008 World Series.
They want to shake that losing feeling.