ST. PETERSBURG — With the Rays’ American League East title dreams all but dying last weekend in New York, welcome back to the race for the league’s three wild-card spots and the seeding within the group, which seems likely to go down to the final days.
The biggest topic of conversation, and some contention, will be the schedule.
In part, because the Rays have the toughest — including six games with Houston, four with Toronto and three with Cleveland — for a weighted opponents winning percentage of .564. But also because the Mariners have by far the easiest, with all games against the bottom five AL teams (Angels, A’s, Royals, Rangers, Tigers), none of whom are close to a winning record, for a weighted .393.
Here are the three main points of focus:
Barring a massive collapse, the Rays seem in relatively good shape to secure one of the three spots, entering play Saturday third but with a 4½-game lead over the Orioles, plus the tiebreaker. Which means, for example, if the Rays go 9-9, the Orioles have to go 15-4 to beat them out. The only other challenger could be the Central runnerup, currently the White Sox, who were 6½ behind the Rays.
Playing at home
Under this year’s new playoff format, the biggest change besides the addition of the third wild card team is expansion of the first round from one game to a best-of-three, with all games played at one site (as an incentive, and to compress the schedule by eliminating a travel day).
So, being the top wild card comes with a significant advantage, joining the No. 3 division winner as first-round hosts (with the top two division winners getting a bye).
Playing at home would seem to mean the most to the Rays as they through Friday had the biggest differential of the wild-card contenders: 47-25 (.653) at home, 33-39 (.458) away.
But the Blue Jays — though only 42-31 (.575) at home — have a built-in advantage with unvaccinated players forbidden from entering Canada. Plus, a packed Rogers Centre can be intimidating.
And the Mariners, though only 39-32 (.549) at home, may have an ever bigger edge with an incredibly energetic crowd that would welcome their first playoff game since 2001 — ending the longest postseason drought in the four major pro sports leagues — to inspire an already good team.
“It would be electric,” said Rays reliever JT Chargois, a former Mariner. “It’s a great baseball town, the people are enthusiastic and want the team to win. … I don’t know what it is about T-Mobile Park, but it’s tough to win there as a road team.”
‘Tanking for Tito’
If the Rays aren’t the first wild card, there will be considerable chatter that they’d be better off third.
As the second wild card (and No. 5 overall seed), they would have either a grueling trip from Boston (where they finish the season Oct. 5) to Seattle, where they were 3-1 this year but 3-13 over the last five; or go to Toronto, where they are 4-6 this season and again would be without unvaccinated reliever Brooks Raley.
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So the thinking is that by losing an extra game or two and finishing behind the Mariners and Blue Jays they would have a more winnable matchup as the No. 6 overall seed playing at the less-imposing and No. 3 seed Central division champs. As of now, that looks to be the Guardians, managed by Kevin Cash’s buddy, Terry “Tito” Francona, with the White Sox four games back (through Friday) and the Twins five out.
Plus, there could also be an additional edge in the next round in avoiding the AL-best Astros. There is no re-seeding, so the No. 3/6 winner will play the No. 2 division winner (Yankees,) while the 4/5 winner will face the top seed.
Team G SOS Opponents
Mariners 19 .393 Angels (3), A’s (6), Royals (3). Rangers (3), Tigers (4)
Jays 17 .543 O’s (5), Phillies (2), Rays (4), Yankees (3), Red Sox (3)
Rays 18 .564 Rangers (2), Astros (6), Jays (4), Guardians (3), Red Sox (3)
Orioles 19 .545 Jays (5), Tigers (3), Astros (4), Red Sox (4), Yankees (3)
SOS – strength of schedule based on weighted opponents winning percentage, per Elias Sports.
In a best-of-three playoff series, who joins Shane McClanahan and Drew Rasmussen in the Rays ‘rotation? How about a Tyler Glasnow/Jeffrey Springs combo? … An additional cool element to the Rays’ historic batting order of all Latin American players: Coaches and staff rotate who brings out the lineup card the game after losses, and Thursday happened to be Dominican Republic-based third-base coach Rodney Linares’ turn. … Yes, Wander Franco was using a Danny Mendick bat in a few games. Franco returned from his Durham rehab swinging an axe handle bat — shaped to reduce discomfort from his surgically repaired right hand — that bore the name of the White Sox infielder. The bat somehow made its way to Bulls utility man Miles Mastrobuoni, who gave it to Franco to try. Franco now has his own model. … Among several locker nameplate misspellings in Toronto was rookie Jonathan Aranda’s first name as Jothan. Also, JeFFFrey Springs, which at least was better than the “Jeffery Rasmussen” he had in Miami. … Bench coach Matt Quatraro would seem a likely candidate for the Rangers’ managerial job, now staffed on an interim basis by Tony Beasley. … TV play-by-play man Dewayne Staats throws out the first pitch Monday to mark his 7,000th broadcast, having started his career with Houston in 1977. … Top Rays minor-leaguers will be honored before Thursday’s game, annual team awards from the Tampa Bay baseball writers announced Saturday. Asking for a friend: Who is the Rays’ MVP? … Curious to see if the multi-tiered ticket discounts, some as low as $9, boost the final week crowds. ... Raley declined Friday to discuss missing the second Toronto trip by being unvaccinated; it will be a bigger story if the Rays go there for the playoffs.
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