ST. PETERSBURG — Kevin Kiermaier was standing in centerfield Saturday night as the Rays counted down the final three outs to finish off the Marlins 7-3 and start celebrating their American League East title. He was remembering a conversation he had with manager Kevin Cash the first week of the season after a game in Boston.
“Cash asked me, he said, ‘What’s this group about?’ I said, ‘We’re going to be great. I promise you. We get along great. And there’s just a great vibe. I don’t know what it is. It’s a week or so into the season, but we’re going to be really good. I promise you that.’
“And he just looked at me and said, ‘Okay,’ kind of like, ‘Prove it.’ And here we are.”
And there they were, congregating first on the field, pulling on division champ T-shirts, congratulating each other, sharing a moment with family, acknowledging the fans who stuck around from the season-high sellout crowd of 23,783, and posing for a team photo on the mound.
There they were inside the clubhouse, popping bottles, spraying champagne and pouring beer, celebrating, in Kiermaier’s words, as a bunch of grown men acting like little kids.
Having kept things tame Wednesday when they clinched a third straight playoffs berth because they considered the division title a much more significant goal, they also wanted to make up for last year when they weren’t allowed to get wet or wild during their march to the World Series due to coronavirus restrictions.
“It was awesome. It was something we definitely missed last year,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said in the dugout afterward. “Confetti poppers are fun, but there’s nothing that beats the burn of champagne. It burns so good.”
The Rays had plenty of reasons to celebrate winning the division title for the second straight year — and fourth in 14 — given the challenges they face competing in the AL East against bigger-budgeted bullies such as the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays.
“The AL East is the ultimate test in baseball, and this team has once again risen to the challenge,” team president Matt Silverman said. “It’s really something to pause and revel in before resuming the quest for the World Series title.”
And more so to come out on top after a massive makeover of their roster during the offseason, then throughout the year as they sustained a slew of injuries, using 61 players (including 18 rookies) to get to this point. In a nod to the roster shuffling, and in one of the coolest parts of the celebration, they Zoomed in the Triple-A Durham team, as many of those players were with them this season.
“All the injuries, everything we had — for just one after another to step up, fill in and contribute, it really makes it special,” general manager Erik Neander said.
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The Rays went into Saturday needing to win and have the second-place Red Sox lose to get the party started, a chance many said they were excited to share with the fans, and the first of the four division titles they clinched at home.
The Sox were complicit, blowing an eighth-inning lead when Yankees DH Giancarlo Stanton hit a two-out grand slam. Some Rays had been tracking the Sox score, but they all knew when the final was posted on the video board during the sixth inning. All the Rays had to do then was win and they were in.
With rookie lefty Shane McClanahan giving up just one run over his typically strong five innings, they were in good shape. They tied the Sox in the fourth, when Austin Meadows tripled and Joey Wendle doubled, then went ahead in the fifth when Brett Phillips reached on an error and catcher Mike Zunino, the team MVP, delivered a homer, his 32nd of the season. They kept the lead and kept adding on, and made it official when Pete Fairbanks — after loading the bases — got Lewis Brinson to pop up, and first baseman Ji-Man Choi secured the final out.
“Being able to accomplish this today was a huge feat for us,” Meadows said. “I was telling the guys this is just the start of it, this is where the fun begins and hopefully we can keep having fun.”
They’ve had a fair amount already. The win improved their AL-best record to 96-59, putting them in position to earn the top seed and homefield advantage through at least the first two rounds as they have a five-game lead over the Astros with seven to play.
They also have a chance to break the franchise record for wins, 97 by the 2008 team that went to the World Series. (The Rays’ 40-20 record in last year’s abbreviated season would extrapolate to 108-54.)
Infielder Yandy Diaz said the division title validated the point he has been making for months.
“Like I said before, this is the best team in the American League,” he said via team interpreter Manny Navarro, “and today we showed it.”
Cash said much the same in his message to the team, with the proviso that that they want to keep celebrating.
“Basically that we’ve gone out, we’ve proven we’re the best team in American League for six months,” he said. “Let’s keep grinding and let’s do it for one more month and then see where we go.”
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