BOSTON — The banner marking the American League East Division championship will be hung at Tropicana Field in April, and there will be other mementos and lasting memories from the 100-win regular season that was the most successful in Rays history.
But the primary, and pretty much only, goal was to get back to the World Series and win the franchise’s first championship, one that eluded them in two previous attempts, last year and 2008.
And by that measure, this season turned out to be a dismal disappointment.
Rather than playing in a World Series that could stretch past Halloween, the Rays had their season ended on Columbus Day, stunningly knocked out in the AL Division Series by the rival Red Sox in four games, Monday’s 6-5 walkoff loss the final blow.
“Very disappointing, obviously,” veteran reliever Andrew Kittredge said. “Based on where we were last year and where we felt like we belong, it’s disappointing. That being said, I’m so proud of the guys. What a great season, franchise-record wins, there’s so much to look back on and really be proud of. But it does hurt right now.”
Manager Kevin Cash, who addressed the team briefly after the game, and centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier spoke of a similar balance between what they did in the regular season and what they failed to do in the postseason.
“There’s no doubt there’s disappointment,” Cash said. “I think we’ve got to look at it — very proud of what was accomplished in the regular season, but we had high aspirations to get deep in this thing. We ran into a Red Sox team that they just beat us, no other way around it. They got the big hits.”
The end came painfully. Enrique Hernandez delivered a sacrifice fly to score Danny Santana, a pinch-runner for Christian Vazquez, who led off the ninth with a single to left off J.P. Feyereisen, went to second on a bunt and third on an infield single when third baseman Yandy Diaz bounced a throw that first baseman Ji-Man Choi couldn’t scoop, though did block.
That was after the Rays had come back from a 5-0 third-inning deficit, cutting the margin to 5-3, then tying the score with a rally in the eighth on consecutive hits by Mike Zunino, Kiermaier and Randy Arozarena, and then Kiermaier making a tremendous throw from centerfield to third for the final out of the eighth to keep it tied.
As many times as the Rays came back this season by scoring runs late, including from a season-high 6-0 deficit last month at Fenway Park, several felt they were headed toward another dramatic win Monday and would force a fifth and deciding game Wednesday at Tropicana Field.
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“I never feel out of any game with this group here,” Zunino said. “It’s one of those things, we were resilient all year and guys played extremely hard through the last out. Tip your cap. That’s what I wanted to tell those guys. You left it all on the field. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. When you can battle up in a game like that and tie in a five-nothing deficit is a huge positive. It just didn’t work our way.”
As a result, they are headed home for an earlier-than-expected winter. Kiermaier said he felt the series got away from them when they blew a lead in Game 2 at home. Losing back-to-back games on walkoffs in Boston had to make it even tougher.
“It’s frustrating to have it end here in the Division Series,” Kittredge said. “I think we are a better team than maybe we showed lately. But you know the Red Sox are a really good team, too. And they played a really good series.”
Of the seven times the Rays have made the playoffs in the last 14 years, this is the fifth time they have been knocked out in the best-of-five division-series round.
Of the 18 American League teams to win 100 games in the wild-card era (starting in 1995), seven have lost in the division-series round. And in the eight years of the single-game wild-card matchup, the top seeds have lost a division series to the wild-card winner seven times.
Because they used nine pitchers in Sunday’s 13-inning loss, and as somewhat of a byproduct of how they constructed their 26-man roster in planning to use only three traditional starters, the Rays were a bit shorthanded pitching-wise Monday.
That forced them to consider some unexpected options, and the one Cash chose — bringing back Game 1 starter Shane McClanahan on short rest to pitch in relief — failed miserably. He allowed five runs in an eight-batter sequence in the third.
The Rays battled to get back to even. They got one run in the fifth after Jordan Luplow led off with a double. They got two in the sixth when rookie Wander Franco capped his impressive postseason debut with a two-run homer. And they got two more to tie it in the eighth. But they couldn’t get ahead, and then the Sox rallied against Feyereisen to win it.
Kittredge said some players in the clubhouse were “upset.” Feyereisen said the suddenness of their exit, after just four postseason games, was the main topic in what he said was like a chat among brothers around a campfire.
“It was quick,” Feyereisen said. “I think that’s one of the main things when we sat down, like, ‘Wow, I didn’t think it was going to be over this quickly.’ We felt good. We played some good games. You come in here, especially with this atmosphere, with these crowds. And two walkoff wins (for Boston), that’s tough. You think, ‘What could I have done better?’ ”
Kiermaier said the hugs and handshakes among the players were a reminder of how special the group, and the season, was despite the ending.
“I always say there’s no moral victories. We came up short, no doubt about that,” he said. “Red Sox played their butts off. Tip our caps to them. They were great. They beat us fair and square. You win as a team, you lose as a team.
“Our season’s over. But I’m not disappointed at all. It was so special to go to the field each and every day with those guys starting from spring training. ... We have such a close-knit group. You hear things from other guys, from other organizations, and it’s hard to come by what we had each and every day.
“We would have loved to get to the next step and get back to a World Series and try to take that next step. It just wasn’t our time.”
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