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No place like home, but Rays could be facing a long, winding road

Tales | Hanging on to homefield advantage could be a huge benefit to the Rays given their end-of-regular-season schedule.
Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen watches as Taylor Walls slides into home plate at Tropicana Field on Friday.
Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen watches as Taylor Walls slides into home plate at Tropicana Field on Friday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sep. 24

ST. PETERSBURG — Having pulled even with the Blue Jays atop the American League wild-card standings Friday, and earned the tiebreaker by clinching the season series, the Rays have ample motivation to finish first.

Like wearing clean underwear and avoiding emergency shopping trips for new socks and shirts.

Only the top finisher of the three wild cards gets to play at home in the first round under the new postseason format, which starts with a best-of-three series all at one site, then sends the two first-round winners to open the best-of-five Division Series on the road.

Given that the Rays already are leaving Monday afternoon to play their final nine regular-season games on the road — at Cleveland, Houston and Boston — there are some practical benefits in addition to the competitive advantages of getting to play at Tropicana Field.

“I’ve thought about how long our road trip could be if we’re not the home team,” pitcher Drew Rasmussen said.

Potentially, 18 days long.

“There’s definitely a lot of benefits to being the home team,” Rasmussen said. “I don’t think that we’re looking that far in the future yet. It’s just something I’ve taken note of.”

As they all should.

The Rays, in the most extreme scenario, could have this itinerary starting Monday: Home to Cleveland to Houston to Boston to Seattle to Houston to home (after playing Oct. 13). If not Seattle, then Toronto or back to Cleveland. And if Cleveland, then New York instead of Houston.

The Mariners are currently the third team, 1 ½ games behind the Rays and Jays going into play Saturday. The Orioles are still battling, three behind the Mariners.

The Rays also have the tiebreakers over the Mariners and Orioles. But they have the toughest schedule.

The Rays have noticeably played better at home this season in front of friendlier fans.
The Rays have noticeably played better at home this season in front of friendlier fans. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

The Rays would seem to benefit the most from playing at home given the biggest differential in their home (51-28 through Friday) and road (33-39) records of the four. The top wild-card team hosts the second; the third plays at the division winner with the worst record, which will be Cleveland. The Astros and Yankees get byes.

Rays manager Kevin Cash said he “definitely” considers it an advantage to be the home team.

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“I feel like we’ve played really good baseball at home,” he said. “Then on the other side of it, when you go into a ballpark, you can just expect that whatever the atmosphere is during the regular season in those ballparks, it’s going to be 10 times that.

“I’ve been in Cleveland (as the bullpen coach) when they’ve had a playoff game (in 2013 against the Rays). I know how that fan base is. Since Seattle started playing well over the last two years that place rocks really well. And same with Toronto.”

How much the Rays truly value the homefield advantage — beyond saving the travel hassles, such as the 2,500-mile, 5 ½-hour plus flight from Boston to Seattle — isn’t clear.

The Blue Jays, for example, said they would be willing to use top starter Alek Manoah in Game 162 if they had a chance to get homefield advantage even though that would knock him out of pitching in the three-game Wild-Card Series.

The Rays could be in the same position with Shane McClanahan, but it seems unlikely they would do so and weaken their chances in the playoff series.

The Rays did get a little sense of what their edge could look like Friday, with a spirited crowd of 17,407 — still some 7,600 shy of the upper deck-less capacity — rocking the Trop.

“To have fans that are locked in and that are energetic and they’re bringing it — you know as well as I do that when the Trop gets full and the Trop gets loud, it is a very fun place to play,” reliever Pete Fairbanks said. “We’re hoping that we can kind of get that these last two home games and then hopefully get to have it for a few more in the playoffs.”

Fight night at the Trop?

Despite downplaying and denials, there are still questions about Monday night’s parking lot kerfuffle between Randy Arozarena and Yandy Diaz. What it was about, who else may have been involved, if it was physical and how. St. Petersburg Police didn’t get involved. Spokesperson Ken Knight told the Tampa Bay Times’ Tony Marrero: “Our officers were working security at Tropicana Field at the time. They spoke to the people involved and determined the issue had been resolved. No incident report was taken.”

Rays rumblings

Harold Ramirez originally said he dyed his hair blue as a nod to his winter ball team in his native Colombia; he now acknowledges it’s a tribute to raise awareness for autism, which impacts his oldest son, Elian. … … Radio broadcaster Dave Wills, sidelined since Sept. 15 due to a heart issue (but not a heart attack), said he is feeling good and hoping to get back behind the mic during the final road trip. … Isaac Paredes (a native) and Randy Arozarena (a Cuban who previously established residency) are planning to play for Mexico in the spring World Baseball Classic; Jonathan Aranda said he would if invited. Class A Charleston manager Blake Butera, coming off back-to-back championships, will be the bench coach for Team Italy, managed by Mike Piazza. … Jim Bowden, writing for The Athletic, says the Rays should consider trading Wander Franco this offseason. … Cool touch by the Rays clubhouse staff to give outfielder David Peralta a bottle of tequila to mark his 1,000th career game. ... Congrats on retirement to Stephen Vogt, one of the game’s best, and funniest, guys, who started as a Rays minor-leaguer in 2007 and played 10 big-league seasons. … Kyle Manzardo, named the Rays’ minor-league player of the year, was also the choice of Baseball America. … Bally Sports Sun Rays reporter Tricia Whitaker, working Friday’s Dodgers-Cardinals game for AppleTV+, had an incredible camera well view of Albert Pujols’ 700th home run. Pujols hit 15 of those homers against the Rays, and made mention postgame of scout Fernando Arango, who unsuccessfully pushed his then-Devil Rays bosses to draft Pujols in 1999 and became a close friend. … When bullpen catcher Charlie Valerio got a little too aggressive during the post-game celebration of Miles Mastrobuoni’s first hit Friday, a veteran player removed all clothes from Valerio’s locker when he was in the shower and deposited them on the field. ... Part of Mastrobuoni’s inspiration to make the majors: Older brother Marcus played four years in the Cubs system without getting past Class A.

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