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Proud, disappointed Rays ponder how to take the next step

A fifth loss in the division-series round in seven postseason appearances raises questions about the team’s youth and roster composition.
Rays baseball operations president Erik Neander , left, and manager Kevin Cash, right, speak to reporters during a news conference Tuesday at Tropicana Field.
Rays baseball operations president Erik Neander , left, and manager Kevin Cash, right, speak to reporters during a news conference Tuesday at Tropicana Field. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 12, 2021
Updated Oct. 13, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — The backdrop was barely used but already out of date.

As baseball operations president Erik Neander delivered an afternoon-after assessment Tuesday of his top-seeded team’s early playoff ouster, he noted the sign of the times. Rather than sitting in front of a generic Rays banner, he would have preferred to be using the one from the since-completed American League Division Series, now shoved to the side of the interview room at an unexpectedly quiet Tropicana Field.

“But that’s where we are,” Neander said.

The Rays were there because they were eliminated in the best-of-five first round by the wild-card Red Sox, a team they finished eight games ahead of during the season.

Like manager Kevin Cash and several players after Monday’s finale in Boston, Neander said he was proud of how the team overcame an ongoing roster reshuffling and string of injuries to win a franchise-record 100 games during the regular season. He also was disappointed by the unexpected ending, as they lost three straight to the Red Sox after winning the Series opener.

“Both those things are possible,” Neander said.

But as the boss, Neander also has to ascertain the whys and hows.

He noted the unpredictable nature of best-of-five series, with some validity. For example, the Rays were swept in the first meeting between the teams in Boston in early April, then went 11-5 against the Sox. Also, before this series, the Rays had not lost three straight games for more than two months.

Neander acknowledged that the youth the team relied on — both he and Cash said often in setting their postseason roster they’d “take talent over experience” — didn’t do enough, specifically young starters Shane Baz, Drew Rasmussen and Shane McClanahan (in his Game 4 relief outing, after making a strong Game 1 start).

“We went into this series relying on a lot of young players, and even some slightly older players, that didn’t have a lot of experience,” Neander said. “And that’s okay. That’s the way we’re going to have to do this oftentimes.

“But with that, in some of these experiences, obviously some of those younger players didn’t have their best series. The starters, aside from Game 1, certainly wasn’t the best that they’ve given us this year. And you know that going in, that those things can happen. You recognize that.”

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On the plus side, Neander and Cash said the experience of the playoff atmosphere, both at Tropicana Field and at frenzied Fenway Park, will be a huge benefit in accelerating those players’ development.

There also will be an internal review and ample discussion of the Rays’ way of winning, which is based primarily on rosters stocked with complementary, versatile players and depth to provide replacements and options when needed rather than higher-paid stars.

For all the success they have had in reaching the playoffs seven times in the past 14 years — only three teams have done it more — the Rays have been eliminated in the division-series round five times, reaching and losing the World Series the other two (2008 and 2020).

Has their model played a role in the outcomes?

“Over the course of the season, you saw this year we used 60-some odd players to keep ourselves not only afloat but to thrive,” Neander said. “Part of our regular-season success is having next waves and lines available that can contribute, and we don’t have a lot of falloff. That’s been a big part of our success over the years.

“This group here — each is different — you look at this group and how it’s made up, I don’t know if we’ve ever gone into the postseason with a group quite like this with this much young, inexperienced talent that, frankly, was also really good.

“... But at the end of the day, the talent does get more concentrated (in the) postseason. You can’t play a postseason game with 60 players. It tends to be a little more top-heavy. It tends to come down to a few big plays by big players in big situations. And I do feel really good about the group we have moving forward.”

Despite their disappointing postseason, the Rays feel they have the right pieces to win that elusive championship.

“We won’t feel too sorry for ourselves here,” Neander said “It’s time to find a way to make it better next year. And ultimately, I do believe that with the talent we have that we’re going to kick down the door sooner rather than later and finally get the World Series we’re chasing.”

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