Did Rays get what they deserved against Guardians?

Tampa Bay’s plan to rest key players at the end of the regular season raised questions. But in the end, Cleveland’s pitching was the key.
Rays pitcher Corey Kluber takes the ball from manager Kevin Cash while entering Game 2 of the American League Wild Card Series in a relief role in the 13th inning Saturday at Progressive Field in Cleveland.
Rays pitcher Corey Kluber takes the ball from manager Kevin Cash while entering Game 2 of the American League Wild Card Series in a relief role in the 13th inning Saturday at Progressive Field in Cleveland. [ JOSHUA GUNTER | ]
Published Oct. 9, 2022

CLEVELAND — So much for “Tanking for Tito.” Maybe the Rays should have been “Triumphing for Toronto,” instead.

Tampa Bay got what it expected in facing Cleveland — a matchup with a team very much like itself, stocked with dominating and dazzling pitching backed by solid defense and a somewhat limited offense that was further challenged given the stage and the stakes.

The Rays came up just short — swept by a cumulative 3-1 margin, with all of the runs coming on homers — in two games, but that was their season.

In the days leading up to Friday’s opener, there was some self-deprecating joking between members of the organizations that the reason they were assigned the noon starts was because it could take all day for them to score.

That wasn’t so funny as Saturday’s game rolled to the 15th inning and near the five-hour mark before Guardians rookie Oscar Gonzalez ended it with a blast off former Cleveland star Corey Kluber.

So, did the Rays get what they deserved?

Though it became a somewhat popular narrative, the Rays weren’t losing on purpose over the final weeks of the season because they wanted to finish last in the wild card field and face Terry “Tito” Francona’s Guardians rather than come in second and play the first wild card Blue Jays.

They were losing — their last five regular-season games, seven of eight, 9 of 11 and 12 of 16 — because they made an organizational decision that more important than potential momentum and confidence was to be as close to full strength for the playoffs as possible.

So they gave key players and those who were sore or recovering from injury rest rather than use them in regular-season games that wouldn’t have any impact aside from whether they would play in Cleveland or Toronto.

The similar styles made the matchup with the Guardians seem more appealing. That, combined with the Rays lineups missing key players and a few atypical in-game decisions, fueled the conspiracy theory that Tampa Bay preferred to play at Cleveland.

Actually, the Rays may have been more comfortable playing the Blue Jays. They were more familiar with how to attack them, knowing their bullpen was vulnerable as the Mariners showed in their sweep. Plus, Tampa Bay had more success against Toronto, going 10-9 (including 5-5 at Rogers Centre), compared to 2-4 vs. the Guardians (1-2 at each site).

So, once the Rays had a strong sense they would make the three-team wild card but wouldn’t finish first and get to host, they put that plan into play and let the road lead them where it would. (Also of note, six of those games were against top-seeded Houston and three at Cleveland.)

“This year has been a grind in large part due to having so many players, key players, unavailable due to injury,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said before Friday’s opener. “Once we were in a position where we were closing in on a postseason spot, certainly once we secured one, we felt, taking a hard look, at what we thought would give us the best chance to make a postseason run.

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“It was less a sensitivity to opponent and it was a commitment to doing everything we could do to freshen up this group, to strengthen them up, and I think to be ideally as strong as we’ve been physically, mentally, emotionally in quite some time.”

Yandy Diaz got most of the stretch off to rest his sore left shoulder. Wander Franco got a few days for his hand to be feeling good. Top relievers Jason Adam and Pete Fairbanks didn’t pitch after Sept. 28.

Was the absence of some key players the reason the Rays struggled at the end? This was a team that showed resiliency all year in losing a litany of star-quality players.

Did it just create a losing vibe they were unable to shake? After the regular-season finale, manager Kevin Cash did volunteer that he told the players, “We can stop sucking. Now, let’s find ways to win games.”

Or was it in any way the after-effects of the Sept. 19 parking lot altercation between Randy Arozarena and Diaz? Since that night, Arozarena went 13-for-58, including 1-for-9 with five strikeouts in the playoffs, while Diaz was 4-for-8 in his limited regular-season play and 0-for-10 in the wild card games.

Neander said entering play Friday that the Rays felt good about what they did and how they did it.

“A lot of these games were not as enjoyable for any of us, our players included, as we’d like them to be,” he said. “But as we’re about to start this postseason series, the energy in our group and the confidence in our group — we’re going up against a good team — but I think these guys are ready to be at their best, and I’m glad that we prioritized what we did.”

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