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Rays ready for September ‘fun,’ chance to catch Orioles in AL East

Playing meaningful baseball makes the final month of the season interesting and exciting, especially with the chance to be popping bottles.
 
Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz (2) and rightfielder Josh Lowe, second from right, celebrate a 5-3 win over the Colorado Rockies earlier this month at Tropicana Field.
Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz (2) and rightfielder Josh Lowe, second from right, celebrate a 5-3 win over the Colorado Rockies earlier this month at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 31, 2023|Updated Aug. 31, 2023

CLEVELAND — The Rays rampaged through April, May and June with the majors’ best record, struggled mightily for much of July and battled to get their groove back in August.

Now, they’re ready to have some fun.

Friday is the first September morn, and the Rays enter the final month of the season aiming to clinch a fifth straight playoff berth, overtake the Orioles for a division title they very much want to win and launch themselves into October prepped and primed for a deep postseason run.

“It’s a blast,” said veteran second baseman Brandon Lowe. “It’s what you always want as a competitor and as a player. You always want to be playing in meaningful ballgames. And they really don’t get a whole lot more meaningful in the next month than we have.”

The Rays head into September 1½ games behind the Orioles in the American League East, with a four-game series looming Sept. 14-17 in Baltimore. They are comfortably ahead in the three-team wild-card field, 5½ games on top of the second-place Astros, 6½ ahead of the Rangers and nine in front of the Blue Jays, the top outside team looking to get in.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said veteran closer Pete Fairbanks. “The chance to play meaningful baseball is not something that’s lost on us. It’s something we’re very fortunate to do. It’s playing baseball — and hopefully dousing each other with alcohol.”

Rays players and staff celebrate after clinching a playoff berth with a victory over the Astros in September in Houston.
Rays players and staff celebrate after clinching a playoff berth with a victory over the Astros in September in Houston. [ DAVID J. PHILLIP | AP ]

One celebration seems all but assured, as the Rays are well-positioned to join the Astros, Braves and Dodgers as the only teams to make the playoffs each of the last five years.

But they want more, specifically to recapture the AL East lead they surrendered in late July.

“It’s very important for us,” outfielder/designated hitter Harold Ramirez said. “We just focus to win the division.”

It’s not just for the prestige of winning the East for the third time in four years. There are key benefits that come with a division title — a first-round bye and homefield advantage for at least the next round.

“The goal for anybody is to obviously win a World Series, and that road is a lot easier when you have to play one fewer series and you get to play in the majority of the games at home,” Fairbanks said.

“So, yeah, I would like to win the division. I think we all would. And I think that that’s something that we’re working towards every time we go out there.”

Knowing they have rebounded from their summer swoon (going 20-9 since a 5-15 run in July) and have some control over their destiny with the four games at Baltimore have the Rays confident they can.

“I think we have a good chance,” infielder Isaac Paredes said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “Especially because I think we’re getting in the rhythm of what we had in the beginning of the year.

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“We know we’re going to be playing against Baltimore soon, and we want to keep that mentality against them and not give up on (surpassing) them. I think we’re going to be all right.”

The work the Rays did over the first five months got them to this position. What happens over the next 4½ weeks will determine what it was worth.

It will be challenging, as they have the toughest remaining schedule of all postseason contenders, including three straight series against the current AL division leaders — hosting Seattle, then visiting Minnesota and Baltimore. Another factor will be whether the Blue Jays stay in the race, as the Rays play six of their last eight games against them.

“For my opinion, the playoffs have started right now,” Ramirez said. “Because every game, it’s like we’ve got to win no matter what.”

Here is a breakdown of the Rays’ road ahead (records and stats through Wednesday’s games).

Remaining schedules

Rays rightfielder Manuel Margot (13) steals third base during a game against the Baltimore Orioles in June at Tropicana Field.
Rays rightfielder Manuel Margot (13) steals third base during a game against the Baltimore Orioles in June at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Rays

(28 games, strength of opponents .537)

3 at Guardians (.478 winning percentage), 3 vs. Red Sox (.515), 4 vs. Mariners (.571), 3 at Twins (.515), 4 at Orioles (.624), 3 vs. Angels (.478), 3 vs. Blue Jays (.545), 2 at Red Sox (.515), 3 at Blue Jays (.545)

Orioles

(29 games, strength of opponents .513)

3 at Diamondbacks (.515), 3 at Angels (.478), 3 at Red Sox (.515), 3 vs. Cards (.433), 4 vs. Rays (.612), 3 at Astros (.570), 4 at Guardians (.478), 2 vs. Nationals (.463), 4 vs. Red Sox (.515)

Magic numbers

Combination of Rays wins and opponent losses to:

Make playoffs

20 (over Blue Jays)

Clinch top wild card

23 (over Astros)

Win AL East

31 (over Orioles)

Format favors finishing first

There is a significant advantage to winning the AL East: getting a bye for the first best-of-three wild-card round. The top two division winners (likely the East and West) get that break (and time to set up their pitching rotation), while the third-best division winner (likely the Central) has to play and hosts the third-best wild card (No. 6 overall seed). The other first-round pairing is the top wild card (No. 4 overall) hosting the second (No. 5). So if the Rays don’t win the division, they want to “win” the wild-card division so they can play the three-game series at home, where they are 45-23 compared to 37-29 on the road. Also of note, teams are not reseeded, so in the best-of-five division series the No. 1 seed faces the 4-5 winner and the No. 2 opposes the 3-6 winner.

Wild-card race

Rays leftfielder Randy Arozarena, left, centerfielder Jose Siri, center, and rightfielder Josh Lowe, right, celebrate after Wednesday's win over the Marlins in Miami.
Rays leftfielder Randy Arozarena, left, centerfielder Jose Siri, center, and rightfielder Josh Lowe, right, celebrate after Wednesday's win over the Marlins in Miami. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]

The top three teams make it:

Team, W-L, Percentage, Games behind

Rays, 82-52, .612, —

Astros, 77-58, .570, 5.5

Rangers, 75-58, .564, 6.5

Blue Jays, 73-61, .545, 9

Red Sox, 69-65, .515, 13

Odds on

FanGraphs.com and baseball-reference.com use stats and computer modeling to create percentage-style “odds” for the postseason. Here is how they see the Rays-Orioles battle:

FanGraphs, Rays, Orioles

Projected win total, 96.9, 97.1

Odds to make playoffs, 99.7, 99.9

To win AL East, 43.9, 56

To win World Series, 8.7, 4.1

(World Series favorite is Atlanta at 28.2)

Baseball-Reference, Rays, Orioles

Projected win total, 96.5, 99.1

Odds to make playoffs, 99.9, 99.9

To win AL East, 23.1, 76.8

To win World Series, 6.3, 11.0

(World Series favorite is Atlanta at 24.0)

September swingers

Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz hits a two-run double during a game against the Miami Marlins in July at Tropicana Field.
Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz hits a two-run double during a game against the Miami Marlins in July at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Career numbers of Rays hitters in September/October regular season games (minimum 25):

Player, G, Avg., HR, RBI, OPS

Manuel Margot, 160, .229, 4, 43, .609

Yandy Diaz, 94, 285, 6, 41, .763

Randy Arozarena, 92, .266, 12, 41, .832

Brandon Lowe, 83, .258, 18, 50, .841

Harold Ramirez, 77, 257, 4, 29, .660

Isaac Paredes, 61, .167, 2, 6, .519

C. Bethancourt, 52, .272, 4, 15, .681

Jose Siri, 51, .250, 6, 15, .726

Taylor Walls, 42, .185, 2, 8, .566

*Wander Franco, 41, .329, 2, 16, .883

Jonathan Aranda, 25, .145, 4, .399

* Currently on administrative leave pending MLB investigation

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