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Nine things to watch for Rays on season-ending road trip

Most importantly for them, they have a chance to be popping bottles by this weekend.
Ji-Man Choi celebrates with his team after clinching a spot in the playoffs thanks to a win over the Blue Jays in 2019. If the Rays clinch a spot this season, they'll also be doing it on the road.
Ji-Man Choi celebrates with his team after clinching a spot in the playoffs thanks to a win over the Blue Jays in 2019. If the Rays clinch a spot this season, they'll also be doing it on the road. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 26|Updated Sep. 26

CLEVELAND — The Rays walked out of Tropicana Field after Sunday’s regular-season home finale loss to the Blue Jays hoping they get to come back and play in the friendly confines again this season.

They will have to overcome the challenges of a nine-game road trip to Cleveland, Houston and Boston — and potentially beyond.

There are two ways for the Rays to play again at home this season:

• Make up the two games behind the Blue Jays for the top spot in the three-team American League wild-card field, and the chance to host one of the best-of-three, one-site, Wild Card Series.

• Win the Wild Card Series on the road — at either Toronto, Seattle or Cleveland — to advance to the best-of-five Division Series against either Houston or New York and host Games 3 and 4.

“There’s a lot of different scenarios where we could end up traveling to after that last day in Boston (Oct. 5),” starter Corey Kluber said before Sunday’s game. “Hopefully it’s back here for a playoff series.”

Here are nine things to consider during the season-ending trip:

Magic number: 5

Though the Rays (84-69) were off Monday, their standing in the race and bid to clinch a playoff spot — starting the day with a magic number of five — was still in play. The Blue Jays (86-67) host the Yankees while the 79-73 Orioles, still battling to get into the three-team field, play at Boston. To clinch a playoff berth — in other words, guaranteeing they’ll finish ahead of Baltimore (over whom they hold the tiebreaker) — the Rays need a combination of five wins and Orioles losses. Put another way, if the Rays go 4-5, the Orioles, who next play the Yankees and Jays, have to finish 10-0 to beat them out.

Popping bottles

Kevin Kiermaier celebrates with Tyler Glasnow and the rest of the team in the club house after they clinched a spot in the playoffs by defeating the Blue Jays in 2019.
Kevin Kiermaier celebrates with Tyler Glasnow and the rest of the team in the club house after they clinched a spot in the playoffs by defeating the Blue Jays in 2019. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Expect the Rays to fully celebrate clinching what will be a team-record fourth consecutive playoff berth, and eighth in 15 years. When? Obviously they can do it on their own and win five straight, but assuming that doesn’t happen and they get some help from the Orioles, most likely this weekend in Houston.

Tie one on

As part of the new postseason format, there are no more Game 163s to break ties for playoff berths. Tiebreakers based on head-to-head regular-season play will be used, and that works to the Rays’ advantage, as they won the season series against the Jays, Mariners and Orioles. If there is a three-way tie, then the key is the best combined winning percentage against the other two teams. If they have the same records against each other, then it goes to record in division games.

Home boys

Randy Arozarena celebrates hitting his 20th home run of the season, against the Blue Jays on Friday.
Randy Arozarena celebrates hitting his 20th home run of the season, against the Blue Jays on Friday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
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How important is homefield advantage in the first round? The Rays have the biggest differential in home (51-30) and road (33-39) records of the four wild-card contenders. And not having to extend the already long road trip would be beneficial. Is it enough that they would scramble their playoff pitching plans if they needed to win Game 162 to get it? Probably not.

Road warriors

Why are the Rays playing nine straight on the road to close the season? Blame the lockout. Under the original schedule, the Rays were just going to Cleveland and Houston. But when the first week of games were canceled, then rescheduled, the Boston series (which was to be the season opener) was tacked on at the end. The other opening-week series, at Toronto, was absorbed into earlier trips north, during which they played five games in four days.

Rough road

Facing the AL Central champion Guardians and AL West champ/top-seeded Astros would seem to make the trip more vexing. But there could be a benefit to the Rays in that both teams have clinched their divisions and are playing for no more than potential World Series seeding (where the team with the best record hosts). So they may be resting or limiting innings/at-bats for some front-line players.

Welcome back

Corey Kluber spent nine seasons in Cleveland, and will pitching the first time as a visitor at Progressive Field.
Corey Kluber spent nine seasons in Cleveland, and will pitching the first time as a visitor at Progressive Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Unless potential rain in Cleveland disrupts the plan, Tuesday could be an eventful day. Corey Kluber, who won two Cy Youngs (and finished third with two other teams) during a nine-year career in Cleveland, pitches for the first time as a visitor at Progressive Field. Infielder Yandy Diaz, who also played previously in Cleveland, is expected back in the Rays’ lineup for the first time in a week, having been sidelined with a sore left shoulder.

Welcome back, part II

On Wednesday, Tyler Glasnow is expected to be activated off the injured list and make his first start for the Rays since June 14, 2021, having undergone Tommy John elbow surgery and installation of a ligament brace in August 2021. Expect Glasnow to be limited to two- or three innings and 45 or so pitches.

Cash vs. Tito

Kevin Cash, who played and coached under Terry Francona, takes his friend's needling with his typical good humor.
Kevin Cash, who played and coached under Terry Francona, takes his friend's needling with his typical good humor. [ MARC TOPKIN | Times ]

Rays manager Kevin Cash considers Guardians manager Terry “Tito” Francona a mentor and close friend, and they often tease, torment and occasionally publicly prank each other when they face off. Cash said that will still be the same, even with the importance of these games for the Rays, or in a potential playoff series matchup. “Won’t change at all,” he said. “I would imagine we’ll talk before the game, we’ll talk after the game, he’ll make fun of me about a stupid decision, and you guys (reporters) will all laugh.”

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