TORONTO — The Rays were, and still are, hoping for bigger celebrations.
But they also felt what they had already accomplished — clinching a playoff berth for a fifth straight season, piling up the second-most wins (97) in the American League and in franchise history heading into the final weekend despite a severely depleted roster — deserved to be toasted.
Also, sprayed with champagne, doused with beer and enveloped in cigar smoke.
“At some point, you have to do it,” veteran starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow said. “Not everyone gets the opportunity, and I think any time you are able to win any sort of playoff thing, you’ve got to celebrate it.”
No matter that they clinched the playoff berth 10 days earlier but passed on celebrating, given it happened during a crucial extra-inning loss to the Orioles team they were chasing in the American League East race.
Or that after dropping two games back by splitting the series in Baltimore they then wanted to wait to see if they could get any closer to the division lead. That pursuit officially ended Thursday when the Orioles beat Boston to clinch the East.
The Rays could have made a bigger deal of securing the top wild-card spot with last Saturday’s walkoff win at home or waited until Sunday’s regular-season finale in Toronto. But they didn’t think either felt right in terms of timing, impacting prep going forward, or any potential awkwardness of doing so in front of a Jays team they may now face again, as the Rays are the top AL wild card and will host a best-of-three series starting on Tuesday.
Instead, the Rays decided to target Wednesday, knowing they had Thursday’s off day in Toronto to sleep it off if needed. They doubled down on the fun, as the annual dress-up trip for rookies and second-year players was already planned to maximize embarrassment during the trip across the border, with reliever Kevin Kelly the star of the show in rock band Kiss gear.
All of which led to the odd scene Wednesday night of a pop-up, bottle-popping party in the visiting clubhouse at Boston’s Fenway Park, the Rays acting — to the amusement of some (USA Today, Sports Illustrated, ESPN and the New York Daily News were among those who ran stories) and ridicule of others (such as Orioles fans) on social media — like they had done much more than complete a 5-0 win over the last-place Red Sox.
Which, albeit on Sept. 17, they had.
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“Getting to the postseason is tough,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said Thursday from Tropicana Field. “It’s not our primary goal — winning the AL East is. And it’s not our ultimate goal — winning the World Series is. But it remains a great accomplishment and something we will not take for granted.
“The timing wasn’t right (to celebrate) in Baltimore the way the series wrapped, but it needed to be right at some point. And that was (Wednesday) night.”
The players and staff put on a good show, donning “Take October” postseason T-shirts and ski goggles, cranking up the music and squirting and pouring 96 bottles of Aubert Et Fils champagne and five cases each of Bud and Bud Light beer on each other, with some taking swigs from a bottle of high-end Blanton’s bourbon.
During occasional breaks to grab a towel, those involved said there were two main reasons to celebrate: because of everything they have gone through to get to this point, and because the opportunity may not come again for some of them.
Injuries, some freak, have been a major problem throughout the season. Most notably, they forced the Rays to remake their rotation, as all five projected starters missed some time — never taking a turn together — and three required season-ending elbow surgery.
Overall, 20 Rays have been on the injured list, with five doing two stints apiece. Plus, their best position player, shortstop Wander Franco, has been out of action since mid-August, when he was placed on administrative leave as Major League Baseball and Dominican Republic authorities investigate allegations of inappropriate relationships with one or more minors.
Put another way, of the 58 players the Rays have used, only five (Randy Arozarena, Christian Bethancourt, Isaac Paredes, Colin Poche and Harold Ramirez) have remained on the active roster all season.
“I’m so proud of this group, to have the type of regular season that we’re having, to be in the position that we’re in,” general manager Peter Bendix said, while dodging beer showers. “We’ve had a lot of adversity. We’ve had a lot of things that we’ve had to struggle to overcome. And we have that next-man-up mentality that we’ve really embraced, and it’s showing up in the results.”
Said first baseman Yandy Diaz, a veteran of all five postseason teams, via team interpreter Manny Navarro: “A lot of things didn’t go too well for us this year, but we’ve been working together, we’ve been staying together, and thank God we’ve been able to stay united to get to where we are now.”
There are players in the locker room who may never get the same opportunity to celebrate again.
Diaz and reliever Pete Fairbanks are lucky, joining the Rays in 2019, and knowing nothing else but going to the postseason every year. Glasnow, Poche, Andrew Kittredge, Brandon Lowe and Jalen Beeks (currently at Triple-A) also have been around the whole time but missed postseasons with injuries.
But who knows if rookies who played key roles much of the season, such as pitchers Taj Bradley or Kelly, or others who lent a hand late, like Jonathan Aranda, Osleivis Basabe or Curtis Mead, will get another chance.
“I can tell you, when I first did this in Toronto (in 2019), it was one of the best experiences of my life,” Fairbanks said. “So, to watch people be able to do that for the first time. To watch Kevin (Kelly), who was a Rule 5 guy and came in here and shoved all year, really came out of his shell and grew, was unbelievable. It’s fun to pour beer on his head, yes. But it’s also great to recognize what everybody else has done so far.”
The same goes for veterans such as Jake Diekman, Erasmo Ramirez, Kittredge and others who may be traded or dropped this offseason.
Or for any of them, really.
“Every time you make the playoffs, it’s a really cool thing,” Bendix said. “And it might be the last time for anybody in this room. So when you make the playoffs, it’s an accomplishment that you celebrate. It’s a little weird that we celebrated (Wednesday), but in my opinion it’s the right thing to do. And I think the guys are having a great time.”
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