CLEVELAND — Remote cameras were mounted in the Rays clubhouse, furniture was moved out, plastic sheeting was hung in front of the lockers, and hundreds of bottles of beer and champagne were chilled.
Only, there was no party, as the Rays let their first chance to clinch a playoff spot slip away Thursday when they let a one-run lead get away in the eighth inning.
Rather than their eyes burning from the celebratory spray, the Rays were left with the sting of a 2-1 loss to the Guardians and a long quiet flight to Houston, where they open a three-game series on Friday.
“I’m obviously disappointed,” first baseman Ji-Man Choi said via team interpreter Daniel Park. “But (Friday) we have another game and I am pretty confident that we’re going to clinch for the playoffs in Houston, so I’m not too worried about it.”
The odds are somewhat in their favor to get it done, as they need only one win over the final six days of the season or one loss by the Orioles to earn a trip to the postseason for a fourth consecutive season.
“It’s been that all year, you turn the page,” said starter Jeffrey Springs. “This day’s over. Unfortunately, we didn’t win that one. But it’s on to (Friday). And I think we bounce back in a big way. So we’ll see how it goes.
“But it’s nice knowing we’ve only got one more to win. So I think, hopefully we’ll show up, be hungry and ready to go.”
The Rays (85-71) were in position to clinch when the Orioles lost a matinee game to the Red Sox, reducing their magic number to one. They also had a chance to gain ground on the American League wild card-leading Blue Jays, who they now trail by two games, and to stay ahead of the Mariners, who played later Thursday.
The Rays seemed poised to take advantage of it when they scored a run in the first, Wander Franco doubling with two outs and David Peralta singling him in. Springs did his part to keep it that way with a strong six-inning outing, allowing only three hits — two that didn’t leave the infield — while striking out five.
With the bullpen limited from recent use, the Rays turned to Shawn Armstrong to work the next two or three innings. He breezed through the seventh but ran into trouble quickly in the eighth.
Will Brennan started Cleveland’s rally with a single to right, and Myles Straw bunted him to second. Rookie Steven Kwan delivered the tying run with a double to left. Amed Rosario’s right-side groundout moved Kwan to third. The Rays then intentionally walked the always-dangerous Jose Ramirez, drawing boos from the Progressive Field crowd.
Armstrong — who said frustration was ”the perfect word” to sum up his night — threw the first pitch in on Oscar Gonzalez’s hands, but he managed a slow grounder to the right side. Choi went to his right and dove for the ball but couldn’t make a clean pickup as Kwan scored.
“It’s one of those where it’s up and in and they fist it like that, it probably has some tricky spin to it,” Armstrong said. “Ji-Man does a great job over at first base defensively. It is what it is — perfect hit, perfect placement, tough luck.”
Want more than just the box score?
Subscribe to our free Rays Report newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Choi said he tried, and wasn’t sure Armstrong would have been at first to make the play.
“I was trying my best to reach for the ball,” he said. “But, honestly, the ball seemed a little too far away from me. And then even though I got the ball, I feel like the covering of first base was a little late, too.”
Adding to the frustration for the Rays, they loaded the bases with one out in the ninth after three walks but Choi struck out and Isaac Paredes popped out to end the game.
Manager Kevin Cash said this loss was no bigger given the circumstance.
“There’s disappointment anytime we lose,” he said. “The disappointment was we’re up 1-0 in the eighth inning and we lost.”
But knowing what could have been, as the clubhouse staff had to scramble seconds after the last out to tear down the plastic sheeting, did make it worse.
“It’s very tough, especially because we played such a good game,” Franco said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “Especially on a day like (Thursday) where we could have clinched. … We’ve just got to come back (Friday).”
• • •
Sign up for the Rays Report weekly newsletter to get fresh perspectives on the Tampa Bay Rays and the rest of the majors from sports columnist John Romano.