ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays had reason to celebrate Wednesday evening, and they did after a 7-1 win over Toronto that clinched their return to the postseason for a third straight season.
They gathered in the clubhouse wearing their new “Built for October” blue T-shirts to exchange hugs, take photos, drink beer and toast their success with champagne in plastic flutes. Team leader Kevin Kiermaier shared many words of congratulations, manager Kevin Cash a select few.
As much of an achievement as it was to reach the playoffs three years in a row for the first time in franchise history, the Rays’ celebration was somewhat restrained — neither wet nor wild. That was not because of what they have done before, but because of how much more they realistically still expect to accomplish.
First, a second straight American League East title, which they have a chance to clinch as soon as Saturday night (they lead the Red Sox by six games with nine to play), and a plan to celebrate more fervidly.
And then, a return trip to the World Series, with a more successful ending than last year’s six-game loss to the Dodgers.
“Obviously, we’re in the postseason. That’s great. We’re all excited about that,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said. “But to say that we don’t have bigger aspirations in that clubhouse, we’d be lying to everybody.
“We have our eyes on something else. … And we’ll celebrate when we do what we want to do.”
Cash wanted to make sure his players appreciated both what they have done — posting an AL-best 94-59 record, and becoming the first Rays team to clinch anything in front of their home fans since the dramatic ending to Game 162 in 2011 — with what is still to come.
“Pretty special day,” he said. “I’m glad we got it done at home. These guys have been so good all year long. You always reference resilience — yes, they have been. But ultimately, they’ve been good. They deserve to be in this spot.
“I know that we all recognize and appreciate that we’ve got more work to be done. But you’ve got to enjoy these moments, because they’re tough to come by.”
This will be the Rays’ seventh trip to the postseason, all in the last 14 years. Only the Dodgers, Yankees and Cardinals have been there more during that span. The nine teams that have never made it three straight years includes some tradition-laced franchises, including the Reds, White Sox and Mets.
The Rays’ success has become so expected that when asked how he started his postgame address to the team, Kiermaier said, “just kind of the same old, same old,” and laughed when that was pointed out to him later.
But this clinching was certainly unique, primarily because most of the Rays had no idea it was even possible until sometime during the game or, for some, after the final out.
“I had no clue,” Kiermaier said. “There was a lot of people walking out of the dugout right after we won, which usually isn’t a thing, and everyone had the October shirts on, so then I put two and two together and realized what was going on.”
It wasn’t their fault. Based on information provided — and adjusted a couple of times previously — by Major League Baseball, the understanding was that the Rays needed a win AND a loss by either the Red Sox or Yankees, who played Wednesday night, to clinch.
But baseball communications manager Craig Vanderkam figured out late Wednesday morning that the Rays actually were in better position, that they would be in with a win. He got confirmation from MLB and let Cash know about 45 minutes before first pitch. It was made official shortly afterward. Some players heard during the game, others when the PA announcer urged the Tropicana Field crowd of 10,994 to stand for the final three outs or from the video board, and still others, like Kiermaier, only when it was over.
“It’s all right, MLB,” infielder Joey Wendle joked. “Math is hard.”
Even without knowing the prize, the Rays took charge early against the Jays, scoring six runs in the third, with Lowe and Randy Arozarena starting the rally, Austin Meadows delivering the big blow with a three-run homer (his 26th, and 103rd RBI) and Taylor Walls adding a two-run single.
And they pitched well, Luis Patino moving up in the rotation to make a three-inning start and five relievers following as they held the potent Jays to four hits.
Besides the momentum from winning two of three in what has been an inconsistent September, the Rays may have gotten some additional motivation as the Jays — after saying they were over the issue stemming from Kiermaier picking up a pitching data card Monday and walking to the dugout with it— waited until his last at-bat to hit him with a pitch.
As if they needed any more incentive.
“It’s been since last year, I think, as soon as we watched the Dodgers run out onto the field,” Lowe said. “I think everybody in that locker room knew right then and there that we belong here. We can be here next year. It’s time to get ready for it.
“We showed up in spring training, had some new faces, everything like that, and everything meshed together perfectly. And they adopted that idea, that everybody thought the same thing. We have one main goal, and it’s to be in the position we were last year with a different outcome.”
Wednesday was the first official step.
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