ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have had plenty to celebrate the last couple years.
In 2019, the last year B.C. (Before Coronavirus), their return to the playoffs for the first time in six years was clinched during the final weekend in Toronto, then a wild-card game win in Oakland.
During last year’s pandemic-plagued, fan-less and fun-challenged season, they booked a return trip to the playoffs while in Baltimore, then nabbed the much-coveted American League East title after beating the Mets in New York.
Though the Rays got to come home for the expanded first-round playoff series and swept the Blue Jays with limited family members watching, there wasn’t much of a party, given Major League Baseball’s mandate for muted and socially-distanced celebrations, plus the team was under quarantine at the Renaissance Vinoy hotel.
Then they headed out to the MLB bubble in San Diego, where they went on to beat the Yankees in the AL Division Series and the Astros in the AL Championship Series, and were similarly restricted in their partying at Petco Park. After that it was on to Arlington, Texas, where they lost in the World Series to the Dodgers.
But the Rays enter play Wednesday with the chance to do something they haven’t done since 2011′s historic Game 162 drama-fest: Clinch a playoff berth at Tropicana Field and celebrate in front of their fans.
“It would mean everything,” said centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-tenured Rays player and team leader. “I sit here and always say in spring training we’re just trying to put on a show all season for our fans, give people a reason to come out to the games and fill this place and really take in what kind of special group we have.
“And here we are in this position, fast-forwarding six months later from all the spring training interviews, and we’re in a special spot in the best division in baseball, I don’t care what you say. This is so special to be part of. If we were able to do it in front of our home fans for the first time ever — especially for a guy like me, I’ve been here since (2014), part of the teams that didn’t have the best records — it would mean the world to me personally.
“But I know what it would mean to everyone in this clubhouse and dugout, all the fans in the stands as well. Hopefully we can step up to the plate and make it happen. It would be a memory that no one can ever take away from us.”
Something the Rays have never done is clinch the division title at home, which if they win enough — and the second-place Red Sox lose enough — they could do by Sunday’s regular-season Trop finale.
The three previous times they finished as the Beasts of the East, they toasted finishing ahead of their bigger-budgeted rivals as the visitors.
In 2008, they were in Detroit when they lost an afternoon game, then after going off to eat or visit the nearby casino, re-gathered at Comerica Park. They changed from street clothes back into party attire (shorts, T-shirts, goggles) to — of all things — root for the Yankees to eliminate the Red Sox in a twice rain-delayed game that ended close to 1 a.m.
In 2010, they were playing an afternoon finale in Kansas City when they got word — via pitcher David Price running from the clubhouse to the dugout, screaming at the top of his lungs — that they had clinched the title because the Yankees lost (the Rays held the tiebreaker). But that wasn’t enough as the Rays, losing 2-0, rallied to tie in the ninth, then won in 12 innings to take the division outright, which then-manager Joe Maddon said was important to them.
And last year they were at Citi Field where they clinched the title with three games left in the abbreviated season by hanging on to beat the Mets.
The Rays celebrated by popping confetti cannons rather than champagne bottles and dousing each other with silly string instead of beer. There also were some cigars smoked in the dugout, and a parking lot dance party that helped introduce the world to the greatness of Randy Arozarena and Brett Phillips.
“I’m completely dry right now, which I’m not a huge fan of,” Kiermaier said then. “But you have to adapt to what we’re asked of.”
Now they hope to have two wet and wild parties at home by the week’s end.
“I think we can taste it — I’d be lying to you if I told you the locker room’s not in a really good spot right now,” rookie pitcher Shane McClanahan said. “It’d be awesome (to clinch at home). (Last Friday) night, it kind of had a taste of a playoff atmosphere. The place was rocking. The place was packed. And I’d be lying to you if I told you we weren’t talking about it in the dugout. So it’s really exciting to have that opportunity to do it in front of the great (Tampa Bay area) fans. That’s really what we want.”
Manager Kevin Cash, who seemed itchy even answering a question about a potential clinch, gave the house party a tacit endorsement nonetheless. “I’m not big into talking about it before it happens,” he said, “but, yeah, you want to do special things in front of your fans in your ballpark.”
Plus, reliever Andrew Kittredge, a Ray since 2017, said there is some natural curiosity about what it would be like.
“I’m actually excited to see hopefully what that clubhouse looks like all tarped up and everything,” Kittredge said. “So hopefully we get a chance to do it here. If not, when we do get a chance to clinch, it’ll be special no matter where it is. But it would be great to do it here.”
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