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How do you say goodbye to a Rays team that left the field too soon?

John Romano | When a team is this good, can three days in October wipe out the accomplishments of an entire summer?
Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi blocks the throw to the bag, allowing the Red Sox's Travis Shaw (23) to reach first base safely in the ninth inning Monday at Fenway Park in Boston.
Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi blocks the throw to the bag, allowing the Red Sox's Travis Shaw (23) to reach first base safely in the ninth inning Monday at Fenway Park in Boston. [ MICHAEL DWYER | AP ]
Published Oct. 12
Updated Oct. 12

It’s time to choose a final page for the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays scrapbook. Do you end it with the image of Ji-Man Choi on one knee in the bottom of the ninth as the evidence of Yandy Diaz’s errant throw rolls on the ground in front of him, or with Wander Franco covering his face with his hands but still peeking between fingers to watch the Red Sox enjoying a celebration the Rays were certain would be theirs?

If you ask me, I think the final page should remain blank. Let it serve as a melancholy reminder of what could have been.

The Rays followed up the greatest regular season in franchise history with the most disappointing postseason imaginable. A Game 1 victory in the American League Division Series followed by three consecutive losses to a Boston team that had needed every stinking inning of all 162 regular season games just to clinch a postseason spot.

“These guys should be very proud — I know I am — of what was accomplished. You’re allowed to be proud and also disappointed at the same time,” manager Kevin Cash said. “You know coming into spring training, there’s no denying this team had high aspirations.

“But I can’t look at this team as a disappointment, I would say that’s unfair.”

If there is a consolation, the Rays went down fighting. Following the ignominy of a Game 2 blowout at Tropicana Field, the Rays came from behind in the eighth inning of both Games 3 and 4 to tie the score. Unfortunately, in both games, they fell one clutch hit short of glory. Boston followed up its 13-inning win in Game 3 with a 6-5 walkoff victory in Game 4 on Monday night.

The Rays have come up short before in the postseason, but it has rarely felt like this. The 2008 and ‘20 teams that reached the World Series felt as if they had come close to maxing out their potential. The 2011, ‘13 and ‘19 Rays were wild-card teams beaten by division champs in the first round. This postseason felt much different.

The Rays were the defending AL champions and went out to prove that 2020 was no fluke by winning 100 games and finishing with the best record in the league. They scored more runs than every team other than the Astros and had the best ERA in the American League.

And then they got clocked by a team they finished eight games ahead of in the East.

This was like acing every test for an entire semester and then oversleeping for the final exam.

“With how good we were throughout the whole course of the regular season, I truly felt we were going to win the World Series,” centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “I really did with our pitching and our bullpen and with how many runs we can score. We had all the right pieces to do it, but we just got beat by a really good team over there.

“I wish it worked out better for us, but here we are; the season’s over. But man, I’m just so proud to take the field with these guys, I can’t say that enough.”

For six months, the Rays were a team that defied expectations. They struck out all the time, they relied too much on their bullpen, their rotation was much too young. And yet they kept winning and winning and winning. They won more than any Tampa Bay team before them.

By the time September rolled around, you were convinced that all those fears and complaints were just minutiae and noise.

And then in October, all those same concerns came to pass.

The bullpen collapsed in Game 2. The hitters struck out 46 times in four games. And their collection of hard-throwing young starters — Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz, Drew Rasmussen and Luis Patino — got lit up for 13 runs in 12-1/3 innings.

Turns out, they were better as outsiders. As the weird little team that wins against all odds.

“You think of your season coming up short, I thought I’d be a lot more sad. And trust me, I am. This hurts, no doubt about it,” Kiermaier said. “But I know we won’t be able to replace all the great memories we had as a team throughout this whole year on plane rides, bus rides, on the field, in the clubhouse. What a great group to be a part of. So I hope everyone holds their head high going into the offseason, because we have a lot to be proud of.”

Kiermaier is right, of course. The daily joy of following a 100-win team throughout the summer is a pleasure a lot of fans never get to know. But in this moment, perspective feels like a virtue that has been overshadowed by too many doubles off the Green Monster and too many whiffs at sliders outside of the strike zone.

A couple of weeks ago, our biggest worry was the ill-timed announcement of a Montreal sign that was supposed to be hung at Tropicana Field. Today, that controversy seems dated and trite. Instead, you can start looking for an even more cruel sign posted outside the main rotunda:

Closed for the winter.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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