ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays got the hard part out of the way Wednesday, guaranteeing they will be one of 10 teams to play in the postseason this year, and the first American League squad to get in.
But to hear them talk in the dugout after Wednesday’s clinching win, that may have been the easy part. They have much more to play for over their final nine games of the regular season, as they host the Marlins, then visit the playoff-bound Astros and contending Yankees.
“This,” centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said, “is the start of everything.”
Winning the AL East
A big reason the Rays had a low-key celebration after clinching their third straight playoff berth is that they are planning a bigger bash — popping bottles and pouring beer — if they win the East division, which has been and clearly still is a more significant goal.
They are in good position to do so, leading the Red Sox by six games, with a magic number of four — the total of Tampa Bay wins and/or Boston losses — to make it happen, potentially as soon as Saturday night.
“That would be accomplishment No. 1 on the list,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said. “I think everybody had that checklist throughout spring training, and the first thing that we had on there was win the AL East and then kind of go from there.
“We’re close. We’re in a great position to do so. But by no means is it a lock, so we have to come out and play our game, not taking anybody too lightly. Miami’s a great team, so we’ve got to come out with a fire under our butts.”
There are both prestigious and practical benefits to winning the East for a second straight year and fourth in the past 14 seasons (also 2008, 2010).
Though winning postseason series, especially the last one, bring greater rewards and attention, the more vexing challenge is finishing first in a six-month season. Especially competing against big-market bullies such as the Red Sox and Yankees, who routinely have three times the payroll the Rays do and other budgetary benefits.
“You want to win your division. I think it’s as simple as that,” infielder Joey Wendle said. “Especially as competitive as this division is, and as competitive as it’s been all year. You want to have that banner hanging that says, ‘2021 AL East division champs.’”
Which brings us to the practical benefit of being a division winner: avoiding the one-game wild-card play-in and the randomness that can ruin an entire season in 3½ hours.
“I don’t know if any team in baseball enjoys playing a one-game playoff,” manager Kevin Cash said.
Securing home-field advantage
The Rays have held the best record in the American League for 72 days, including the last 50. If they can hang on for 10 more (they are off Monday), they will have the benefit of being the home team in the best-of-five division and best-of-seven league championship series. That means they’d get to host the first two games and the potentially decisive finale.
At 94-59, the Rays on Thursday held a 2½-game lead over the Astros, who played late at Anaheim. The battle for the best record may be decided next week, when the Rays visit the Astros for a three-game series (and potential preview of what would be a third straight postseason showdown) starting Tuesday.
On either side, the Rays host the non-contending Marlins, then visit the Yankees, who may or may not still be in the wild-card race. The Astros visit the even more fringy-contending A’s this weekend, then host them next.
The Rays will take any advantage they can get. “It’s definitely something that we would like, as well,” Wendle said. “To tilt a series in our favor in terms of homefield advantage would be big also.”
(Of note, best record is also used to determine homefield advantage for the World Series, even if one of the teams, such as the Dodgers or Giants, is a wild-card entrant.)
It’s hardly been a September to remember for the Rays, who lost 11 of their first 20 games — more than in their previous 40. Whether it’s a combination of individual or team slumps, fatigue, injury absences (most notably rookie shortstop Wander Franco, who could return Friday) or key players being rested more, the Rays know they have to be better to play deep into October. “We haven’t for a couple of weeks now played to the level we feel we’re capable of,” Wendle said. “So I think our goal and focus is coming out on Friday and continuing to play good baseball. And I think if we do that one game at a time, we’ll like where we’re at.”
Setting a franchise wins record
Getting to 98 wins would make the current club the winningest in franchise history, surpassing the 2008 squad that started the Rays’ run of success with a 97-65 mark. (The Rays’ 40-20 record in the abbreviated 2020 season extrapolates to 108-54). If the Rays can finish 6-3 or better in their final nine games, they would be the 22nd AL team in the last 40 years to get to 100 wins.
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