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Rays will face Blue Jays in first round of playoffs

Toronto loses to Baltimore on Sunday to be No. 8 seed; Tampa Bay beats Philadelphia 5-0 to finish 40-20.
The Rays' Yandy Diaz (2) smiles after a hit with the Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (27) at Tropicana Field on Aug. 21.
The Rays' Yandy Diaz (2) smiles after a hit with the Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (27) at Tropicana Field on Aug. 21. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sep. 27, 2020
Updated Sep. 28, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — As the Rays went about their business Sunday beating the Phillies 5-0, their true attention was on learning who they would play in the best-of-three first-round playoff series opening Tuesday at Tropicana Field.

The Blue Jays are coming.

Despite a loss to Baltimore that cost them a second-place finish in the American League East and a more favorable matchup given the Yankees loss, the Jays insist they are eager to take on the top-seeded Rays, who posted their American League-most 40th win in the 60-game season.

“They really wanted to play Tampa Bay because it was a tough matchup all year,” Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “They might be the best team in baseball, or in the American League anyway. They’re looking forward to the challenge, and I love that about our kids. They really want it.”

The Rays know plenty about the Jays.

They have played 10 times this season, with the Rays winning six, including four of seven at the Trop. (Plus they met four times back in the spring.) Their players compete against each other coming through the minors. And Montoyo spent 20-plus years in the Rays organization, including four as a coach on manager Kevin Cash’s staff, before getting hired in Toronto.

And the Rays aren’t surprised to see the Jays in the postseason, which this year includes eight teams from each league, as their core of young position players, including Lakewood High product Bo Bichette, have quickly matured into productive big-leaguers.

“We talk about the youth, we saw this coming with them when they started calling those guys up and getting opportunities,” Cash said. "And they’ve had the opportunity and the time to kind of jell together.

"Offensively they’ve got a lot of guys that put the ball in play. They’re going to put pressure on the defense. There’s not a ton of swing-and-miss in that lineup. We’re going to have to pitch really well. Saying that, our defense is going to be challenged but we feel like we have a very good defensive club.

Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Cavan Biggio, left, celebrates with shortstop Bo Bichette after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays on July 24.
Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Cavan Biggio, left, celebrates with shortstop Bo Bichette after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays on July 24. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

"On the pitching side with them, (lefty starter Hyun-Jin) Ryu’s been a stud for them. He presents plenty of challenges. And then for my best guess they’re going to be fairly creative with the rest of the games and just continue to give us different looks (with their pitchers). We’ve seen how that works as the team that does it. It’s not that fun to go against it.

“But we’ve got a good team, and we feel good about the opportunity that’s in front of us.”

The Rays have good reasons to. Perhaps, best of all, because of how they’re going into the playoffs.

Including the sweep that knocked the Phillies out of the postseason, the Rays have won four straight and nine of 11. Their previous slumping offense has shown some encouraging signs, especially in facing tough pitchers such as Mets ace Jacob deGrom and Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola.

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“The timely hits have come at the right time and that’s heading in the right direction,” Cash said. “We’ve talked about wanting to create momentum. We feel pretty confident we’ve done that with whatever lineup we’ve thrown out, or whatever pitcher has been out there. We just continue to find ways to win.”

They have their starting pitching lined up well, with lefty Blake Snell working the opener and Tyler Glasnow in Game 2, both on two extra days rest. Charlie Morton is set for Game 3, if necessary. They handled their key relievers with care over the weekend, and got an encouraging Sunday outing from Oliver Drake. The Jays have not said who they are starting.

The Rays do have some injury issues that will be clarified during Monday’s workout, as they have until Tuesday morning to submit a 28-man roster, which may include 12 pitchers and 16 position players.

They seem encouraged about getting back Ji-Man Choi and/or Yandy Diaz, who have been sidelined with hamstring strains. And they don’t seem too concerned about outfielder Brett Phillips leaving Sunday’s game due to hamstring tightness, or Manuel Margot sitting out due to a sore foot from being hit by a foul ball Saturday.

Having clinched a playoff berth Sept. 17, the American League East title Wednesday and the top seed Saturday, the Rays are ready to start the playoff. Tuesday’s game starts at 5 p.m. and Wednesday’s at 4. Both air on TBS.

“We know what they bring to the table. It’s a really talented team," infielder Mike Brosseau said of Toronto. "It’s a really young core. A good group of guys that play well together. We’re going to have our hands full.

"The real fun begins now going to the postseason. But if we take care of what we can take care of, I really like our chances.”