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Unforgettable Rays playoff moments, including one infamous decision

Randy Arozarena and Brett Phillips provide the warm and fuzzies during the postseason run. But that Game 6 move still stings.
The World Series logo is seen on the tarp covering the pitchers mound at Globe Life Field just prior to Game 5 between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The World Series logo is seen on the tarp covering the pitchers mound at Globe Life Field just prior to Game 5 between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Dodgers. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 31, 2020

There is so much to remember from the Rays' remarkable run in an extraordinary season that ended in Game 6 of the World Series. From the world view, general manager Erik Neander citing the pandemic-created circumstances and “the ability for this group to persevere and to go out there and to do what they did and to hopefully bring some joy and some happiness to those that followed us and watch this team will be something that I’ll always remember.”

And all the little things, such as post-clinching dance parties (and playing New York, New York in the dugout after ousting the Yankees), Shane McClanahan’s historic major-league debut, Randy Arozarena’s power boots, Manuel Margot’s acrobatic catch and the other glove love they showed, Brett Phillips' dugout white board.

And a whole lot of good baseball, tense drama and late nights for fans as the Rays went 11-9 in playing a record 20 postseason games, going to a decisive Game 5 against the Yankees in the American League Division Series and Game 7 against the Astros in the AL Championship Series after losing three straight and reaching the World Series for the second time in franchise history, first since 2008.

Here are the five things we consider most memorable:

5. The setting

Tampa Bay Rays players pose for a team photo after beating the Houston Astros 4-2 in the American League Championship Series Game 7 on Oct. 17 at Petco Park in San Diego.
Tampa Bay Rays players pose for a team photo after beating the Houston Astros 4-2 in the American League Championship Series Game 7 on Oct. 17 at Petco Park in San Diego. [ DENIS POROY | Special to the Times ]

As wonderful as the postseason run was for the Rays, it also was incredibly odd given the pandemic restrictions and protocols that had them playing after the first round at neutral sites and sharing resort “bubble” hotels with the other team. The Rays and Yankees playing the ALDS at the home ballpark of the National League Padres in San Diego, Calif., with no fans and late-afternoon starts for East Coast TV was weird. (Though the burritos and fish tacos were good.) And again against the Astros in the ALCS, all with a taxing schedule of no days off within the series.

Then having to relocate to Texas for the World Series against the Dodgers, though a limited number of fans — including some who came from the Tampa Bay area — helped. But it was hard not to think about how much a packed out Tropicana Field would have been rocking, and to wonder if the excitement of having the Series back in Tampa Bay would have generated any momentum for talks on a new full-time stadium. As much of a victory as it was for Major League Baseball to even get to the postseason given all the coronavirus concerns early on, there was so much missing, for the players, team officials, media and fans — from the celebrities on the field pre-game and in the stands, the pre-game pomp and circumstance with live anthems and cheered first pitches by past stars, to the champagne celebrations in the clubhouses, to the memories that weren’t made in person.

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4. Mike Brosseau’s revenge

Michael Brosseau (43) is congratulated by Willy Adames (1) after hitting a solo home run during the eighth inning of the American League Division Series Game 5 against the New York Yankees on Oct. 9.
Michael Brosseau (43) is congratulated by Willy Adames (1) after hitting a solo home run during the eighth inning of the American League Division Series Game 5 against the New York Yankees on Oct. 9. [ DENIS POROY | Special to the Times ]

Infielder Mike Brosseau already had gotten payback for Aroldis Chapman throwing a 101-mph pitch at his head on Sept. 1 at Yankee Stadium. He hit two homers the next day in a Rays victory that helped them to eventually finish seven games ahead of the Yankees and win the AL East. But he got his true revenge in the fifth and final game of the ALDS.

The score was 1-1, on homers by Aaron Judge off Nick Anderson and Austin Meadows off Gerritt Cole. Until Brosseau came up in the eighth with one out to face Chapman. He fell behind 0-2, took three pitches and fouled off four others before lacing a 100.2-mph fastball over the fence and into Rays lore.

After the Rays got the final three outs, the celebrations continued late into the night, with some Rays bringing a boombox to the dugout with a playlist that included New York, New York and Empire State of Mind. “Hands down the greatest moment I’ve been a part of in baseball,” manager Kevin Cash said at the time. “There’s been some great ones, but what that meant to this team, how we got there, that matchup, pretty special. A lot went into that game but for Mikey to come up there in that situation and just come up as big as he possibly could.”

Brosseau, whose personality and backstory of being an undrafted free agent make him one of the most liked in the clubhouse, insisted, with a straight face, “the revenge aspect is not a thought in my mind.”

3. Being Randy

Tampa Bay Rays designated hitter Randy Arozarena (56) throws his bat after connecting for an RBI single in the third inning of Game 5 of the World Series on Oct. 25 in Arlington, Texas.
Tampa Bay Rays designated hitter Randy Arozarena (56) throws his bat after connecting for an RBI single in the third inning of Game 5 of the World Series on Oct. 25 in Arlington, Texas. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

There has never been a player who had done so little in the regular season and did so much in the postseason as Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena. You could make a case — albeit with the benefit of more games — that no player has ever accomplished more, as Arozarena broke several all-time records in introducing himself.

Impressive in the original spring training after being acquired in January as the seemingly lesser part of a trade with St. Louis, Arozarena looked headed to a lost 2020 when he tested positive for COVID-19 at the start of Spring 2.0, was quarantined for nearly a month in a Sunset Beach bungalow and limited to workouts and simulated games into late August at the Port Charlotte camp.

But give credit to Michael Johns and the coaches there for telling the Rays staff that Arozarena was ready for a greater challenge, and he got called up on Aug. 30. That turned out to be a good call, as Arozarena went 18-for-64 (.281) in 23 regular-season games with seven homers and 11 RBIs.

Related: Rays’ Randy Arozarena is the breakout star of this postseason

Then he really turned it on. In 20 postseason games, Arozarena rewrote major-league postseason history, hitting a record 10 homers, rapping 29 hits (with five three-hit games), compiling 64 total bases and logging a record-tying 14 extra base hits. He became the first rookie position player to win an LCS award and would have had a chance to also do so in the World Series had the Rays come back to win.

Pitcher Tyler Glasnow should get credit for breaking the story, as he was the first to say early in October “Arozarena has to be the best baseball player on earth right now.”

The rest of the world would soon see, and the Rays would appreciate him even more given how the rest of their bats went cold, as much of an issue in falling short as anything else. Consider this: Arozarena hit .377 with 10 homers, 14 RBIs and 19 runs scored. The rest of the Rays together hit .189 with 24, 63 and 60.

2. The Brett Phillips Game

Kevin Kiermaier (39) chases Brett Phillips (14) as they celebrate Phillips' walk-off single for the the 8-7 win over the Dodgers in Game 4 of the World Series on Oct. 24.
Kevin Kiermaier (39) chases Brett Phillips (14) as they celebrate Phillips' walk-off single for the the 8-7 win over the Dodgers in Game 4 of the World Series on Oct. 24. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Rays' win in Game 4 was one of the wildest in Series history. And that may be an understatement.

Consider their circumstances, trailing 7-6 in the ninth inning, two on but two out, their least productive hitter — the self-described “last guy on the bench” and a local Tampa Bay kid at that — Brett Phillips at the plate, down to his last strike against closer Kenley Jansen, looking to give the Dodgers a 3-1 Series lead.

Phillips, who hadn’t had at an-bat in 2 ½ weeks or a hit in a month, flared a ball to shallow right-center that got down.

And centerfielder Chris Taylor misplayed it as Kevin Kiermaier scored the tying run.

And Randy Arozarena stumbled rounding third, seemingly sending the game into extra innings.

And Dodgers catcher Will Smith missed the relay throw home.

And Arozarena got up, started back to third, then reversed course and slid headfirst to the plate.

And Phillips took off on a celebratory airplane run through the outfield that left him hyperventilating, dehydrated and on a trainers' room table getting an IV, while his wife, who left the game early, watched from a hotel room near the stadium.

And the Rays made all kinds of history, recording only the third walkoff win in Series history when trailing down to their final out. And they arguably may have their new greatest moment, certainly in the conversation with the 2008 ALCS clinching play of Akinori Iwamura stepping on second and the 2011 Game 162 dramatics with Dan Johnson and Evan Longoria’s home runs.

“Man,” Phillips said in a breathless postgame interview, “baseball is fun.”

1. The Decision

Rays manager Kevin Cash takes the ball from starting pitcher Blake Snell (4) in the sixth inning in Game 6 of the World Series on Oct. 27.
Rays manager Kevin Cash takes the ball from starting pitcher Blake Snell (4) in the sixth inning in Game 6 of the World Series on Oct. 27. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Blake Snell was absolutely dominating going into the sixth inning of Game 6 Tuesday, battling hard to protect the Rays' 1-0 lead and get them to a seventh and decisive game.

The one-out single that the hard-throwing lefty allowed to No. 9 hitter Austin Barnes was just the second of the night against him. He was about to face the top two Dodgers hitters, Mookie Betts and Corey Seager, for the sometimes treacherous third time, having struck them out twice already.

Betts, a righty swinger, had been better against right-handers this season. Righty Nick Anderson was warming in the Rays bullpen, but he’d been struggling, and looking somewhat gassed, over his last half half-dozen outings, including the crushing walkoff homer he allowed to Carlos Correa in ALCS Game 5.

Manager Kevin Cash popped out of the dugout and pointed immediately to the bullpen, making clear there would be no discussion on the mound.

He. Was. Taking. Snell. Out.

Cash was resolute. Snell was stunned, to put it more politely than he did at the moment. Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier and other Rays were surprised. The Dodgers were thrilled, Betts saying later, “It seems that’s all we needed.”

It took only six pitches by Anderson to show how bad of a move it was. Betts doubled. Barnes scored on Anderson’s wild pitch. Seager got Betts home with a grounder to first.

The Dodgers had the lead, and they wouldn’t give it up. The Series was soon over. The criticism of Cash was just starting.

Cash was eviscerated by media, fans and former (and some current) big-leaguers, accused of managing off a script rather than by what he saw, charged with one of the biggest managerial blunders in Series history, even ruining the game.

Candid after what he acknowledged was an “agonizing” night, Cash disagreed with those assessments and defended the move, which was consistent with how he has managed throughout the year, including taking Snell out of ALCS Game 6 and Charlie Morton the next day.

“Was it a mistake? No, I don’t think it was a mistake. And I’m not trying to be hardheaded,” Cash told the Tampa Bay Times. “I was committed and felt good about the decision. I just hate the outcome.”