HOUSTON — As the Rays loudly and wetly celebrated their fourth straight playoff berth and eighth in 15 years, baseball operations president Erik Neander stepped outside the fray Friday night to offer some perspective — and wishful thinking.
Given that this year’s team, 86-71 entering play Saturday night, will have the fewest wins of any of their postseason squads (prorating their 2020 record over a full season), he pitched the idea it could be the one to go the farthest.
“We’ve had some good clubs,” Neander said. “This has not been our best regular season. But it gives us a chance to flip the script and make it our best postseason.”
The Rays have had bigger things to celebrate — including four American League East division championships — than being potentially the third AL wild card and only getting into the postseason because the field was expanded this year.
Under that new format, their first challenge will be a best-of-three, all-at-one-site matchup with either one of the other wild cards — the Blue Jays and Mariners — or at the Guardians, the lowest-seeded division champ, starting on Friday.
Those pairings will be determined over the final days of the regular season, with the two winners advancing to face the top-seeded Astros and Yankees in the best-of-five division series.
Of the Rays’ first seven postseason teams, two made the World Series (and lost) while the other five, including last year’s 100-win AL East champ, got knocked out in the division series.
“We’ve been in wild-card games. We’ve won those both times. It’s been kind of a little bit of a boom or bust,” Neander said. “But the (division series) has been our hurdle. And hopefully this year, we get a chance to step up to that hurdle. We’ve got a round in front of it we need to take care of first. ...
“Once you’re in, you’ve got a chance. ... And one of these years, we’ll have the right group at the right time to break through and win a World Series.”
Right to the point
Manager Kevin Cash isn’t one for soliloquies, so he kept his speech to the team brief, 28 words and barely 10 seconds, before starting the champagne spraying:
“Ups, downs, you guys have stayed and remained consistent all season long. Be really proud. The goal now is to be doing this in a week. Let’s go!”
Cash had a reason to do it that way.
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In 2019, when the Rays clinched for the first time on his watch (and the last pre-COVID time that clubhouse celebrations were open to the media before this year), he dropped an expletive in his speech and jokingly blamed former Rays PR boss Dave Haller for not warning him it was on live TV.
Friday, with counsel from baseball communications manager Karly Fisher, Cash made sure to keep it G-rated “I did because Karly told me there were cameras in here,” he said. “That’s why it was so short.”
Ambush spraying and break dancing
There are always a few people in the clubhouse celebrations who play starring roles, ambushing and spraying as many people as they can. Jose Siri was one, including a planned dousing of Cash, who then made a joke to the group about Siri’s baserunnng.
Yandy Diaz, one of a handful of Rays to be part of all four playoff teams, said he did his fair share of dousing. Ji-Man Choi made sure to include as much of the staff, including interpreter Daniel Park, “because they’re the ones who are working behind the scenes all the time.”
Reliever JT Chargois was “on the prowl,” but Pete Fairbanks said he took care of most of his fellow relievers, as promised.
“Brooks (Raley). (Converted-to-starter Jeffrey) Springs a lot, just given our shared history (as minor-league teammates). Anybody that’s not paying attention,” Fairbanks said. ‘’As far as the bullpen guys go, I promised quite a few people that I was dumping beer on them.”
Another highlight: acupuncturist/athletic trainer Shin Fukuda breakdancing on the wet clubhouse floor.
‘A tradition of winning’
Making the playoffs for a fourth straight season is impressive, though the Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers and Yankees also have, and the Brewers could still join them. On the other hand, storied franchises that haven’t had a four-peat include the Angels, Nationals, Mets, Orioles, Padres. Pirates, Reds, Twins, White Sox.
“It’s unbelievable,” said pitcher Tyler Glasnow. “I think it’s a testament to this organization as a whole — front office, everywhere. I just think it’s been amazing, the depth we’ve had.”
A bigger deal might be making it eight times out of the last 15, starting with the 2008 breakthrough team. Only the Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers and Yankees have done that.
“Those are remarkable figures,” team president Matt Silverman said between celebratory sips. “There’s a tradition of winning here that’s been established over the past decade and a half. For young fans, they know this team as a winning team and a team that’s going to be competing for the playoffs and the World Series every single season. And that’s all we can ask for.”
Neander is good with that.
“Really just proud of this group and glad they have this moment,” he said. “Hopefully there’s bigger moments ahead.”
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