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The hard part is finished. Now the Rays hit the playoffs with nothing to lose

John Romano | Injuries made the regular season a six-month slog, but maybe that means the Rays are battled-tested for October.
Tampa Bay Rays players and staff celebrate after a baseball game against the Houston Astros Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Houston. The Rays won 7-3 and clinched a postseason berth. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Tampa Bay Rays players and staff celebrate after a baseball game against the Houston Astros Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Houston. The Rays won 7-3 and clinched a postseason berth. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) [ DAVID J. PHILLIP | AP ]
Published Oct. 1|Updated Oct. 1

And so, they celebrated. Happily and respectfully. Joyfully and modestly.

Mostly, however, the Rays celebrated … deservedly.

Tampa Bay’s postseason-clinching 7-3 victory in Houston Friday night was the culmination of what is probably the most underwhelming playoff run in franchise history, but that’s only because of the many obstacles the Rays had to circumvent to get here.

This is not the team that dominated the abbreviated 2020 season and reached the World Series. This is not the team that won 100 games last season to earn the American League’s top seed.

No, this is a team that struggled. That wobbled. That looked, for a moment, like it might even stumble in the final stretch.

This is a team, if we’re being truthful, that was more infuriating than inspiring, even as it closed in on a franchise-best fourth consecutive postseason appearance.

And that’s why you should appreciate the 2022 Rays. It’s why they deserved every shimmy and shake in the visitor’s clubhouse at Minute Maid Park Friday night.

Forget the recent offensive malaise for a moment. Forget the missed opportunities and the stupefying inability to play situational baseball.

Instead, consider this:

The Rays have been without their starting catcher (Mike Zunino), second baseman (Brandon Lowe) and centerfielder (Kevin Kiermaier) for most of the second half. Wander Franco missed nearly half the season, while Manuel Margot and Harold Ramirez missed significant chunks.

The Rays lost two of their top relievers (Andrew Kittredge and J.P. Feyereisen) for the season, as well as a starting pitcher (Shane Baz). They claimed players on waivers from last-place teams, they added lifetime minor leaguers to the 40-man roster and they put gloves on players in unfamiliar positions.

And still, the Rays are heading to the postseason.

They have an outside shot at 90 wins and have the fourth-most victories in the majors since 2019. They join the Yankees and Astros as the only AL teams to have made the playoffs each of the last four years.

And, by the way, the Yankees have spent more than $755 million on payrolls during that span, and the Astros have spent $597 million. The Rays? They’ve spent $239 million.

“Ups, downs. You guys have stayed and remained consistent all season long,” manager Kevin Cash told players before the champagne celebration. “Be really proud. The goal now is to be doing this in a week.”

The Rays should appreciate this celebration because, honestly, the next one will be even harder to come by.

As good as the starting rotation is, the Rays have plenty of holes to overcome elsewhere. The defense has been unreliable at times, and the bullpen is not as deep as we are accustomed to seeing.

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Even more concerning is an offense that has faded as the schedule turned tougher in September. For months, the Rays had been banking on the idea of Franco, Margot and Ramirez getting healthy for the stretch run. Yet, the reality is, they have scored only 3.7 runs a game since that trio returned to the lineup. They have been held to two runs or less in 14 of their last 29 games.

After beating the Yankees on Sept. 3, the Rays were four games out of first place in the American League East and were tied with the Mariners for the No. 1 wild-card spot.

They’ve since gone 12-14, have fallen 10-1/2 games behind the Yankees and appear headed to either the second or third wild-card spot, which would mean three playoff games on the road.

So can the Rays, as Cash suggested, be celebrating again at this time next week?

Or course they can. They may have dropped two out of three in Cleveland in what could be a first-round preview, but they had a two-run lead in the 11th inning of Wednesday’s loss and had the potential winning run on second base in the 10th inning of Thursday’s loss.

If they end up playing either Toronto or Seattle in the first round, they went a combined 15-11 against those two teams in the regular season.

This team may not have excelled the way you expected in the spring, but they had persevered by the fall. They may not have dominated the AL East the way they did last season, but they showed resilience and a knack for climbing back up after being knocked around.

You’ve probably watched too many heartbreaking losses to consider the Rays favorites to survive the first round of the playoffs, and that’s okay.

Because you’ve also watched the Rays survive too many setbacks to count them out now.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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