HOUSTON — Though Cleveland appears the most likely destination, the Rays won’t definitively know for another day or two if they are facing the Guardians or Blue Jays in the Wild Card Series that begins Friday.
But they now know they won’t be playing at home.
A 3-1 loss to Houston on Sunday, combined with the Blue Jays’ win over Boston, determined the Rays will be on the road for the best-of-three, one-site series at Cleveland or Toronto.
That’s because they no longer can catch the Blue Jays to finish first in the three-team American League wild-card field and get the home series that goes with it under the new postseason format.
To play again at Tropicana Field this season, the Rays will have to win the opening round and advance to the Division Series against either the Astros or Yankees.
“A lot of things would’ve had to go in our favor,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We’d like to play in front of our fans. Now we’re gonna have to do a little bit more to get that opportunity.”
As recently as Saturday, Cash said hosting the first round was their “clear No. 1″ priority, as their record is decidedly better at home (51-30 vs. 35-43). But the Rays are also balancing getting players healthy and rested for the playoffs.
A Sunday lineup that didn’t include Yandy Diaz or Wander Franco — or have them pinch hit during a ninth-inning rally that ended with Taylor Walls making the final out with the bases loaded — obviously wasn’t their best.
And turning to debuting rookie Easton McGee in the sixth inning with the score 2-1 seemed a risky tradeoff for resting the regular relievers, though McGee did well working the final three innings.
As the Rays head to Boston for their final three regular-season games, they are 86-73 and third in the wild-card field, four games behind the Blue Jays (90-69) and 1 ½ behind the Mariners (87-71), who lost to Oakland on Sunday and have four remaining games, including a Tuesday doubleheader, against Detroit. (Since the Rays can’t catch Toronto, they also can’t end up playing at Seattle.)
If the Rays finish second, they would play at Toronto, with the winner facing the AL-best Astros. If they finish third, they play at the AL Central champ Guardians, with the winner taking on the Yankees.
The second option seems less vexing, but if the Rays have a preference, they aren’t saying, at least not publicly.
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“I think that we’ll be ready for whatever challenge it ends up being,” said Corey Kluber, who delivered a strong five-inning start. “Wherever we end up going now, I think that we’ll get there and we’ll try prepare ourselves as best we can and be ready to roll.”
They will need to get their offense going, as Sunday was the fourth time in their last five games (against well-armed Cleveland and Houston) and sixth in eight that they were held to one or no runs. For the day, they managed six hits against Astros starter Luis Garcia and three relievers, and left the bases loaded in the ninth.
“We’re just not firing right now,” Cash said. “But I’m confident that the guys, they’ll get it going. You certainly have to credit Houston’s pitching. I don’t think we’re maybe our best version right now. But we’ve got time to get there.”
Kluber, making his team-high 31st start and his most since 2018 after three injury-marred seasons, allowed two runs on his first four pitches (Jose Altuve bunt single, Jeremy Pena homer) and nothing else. He finished the regular season 10-10, 4.34.
“I thought he threw the ball really, really well. Really encouraged with that,” Cash said. “He should be really impressed with his regular-season performance.”
In time, Kluber said. “For now, I’m still looking at it as trying to get ready to pitch again.”
Like other things with the Rays, that is to be determined.
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