TORONTO — Like most observers, many of the Rays figured they were going to be hosting the Blue Jays in the American League Wild Card Series that starts Tuesday (3:08 p.m.) at Tropicana Field.
As late as Sunday morning, five of the eight remaining scenarios had the Rays playing the Jays, with two for the Rangers and one for the Astros.
But things happened, most notably the Rangers continuing their final weekend fade. They lost what had been a 2-1/2 game division lead on Thursday morning by dropping three of four to the Mariners, including 1-0 Sunday in Seattle.
And with the Astros winning at Arizona, Houston claimed the AL West title and first-round bye via the tiebreaker. That sent the frustrated Rangers on a cross-country flight to face a Rays team that is feeling pretty good about itself after beating the Blue Jays 12-8 to finish with 99 wins, second-most in franchise history.
“We all thought it’d be Toronto,” said Rays infielder Yandy Diaz, who won the AL batting title with a .330 average. “Everybody thought that until there at the end of the game, when we knew we were playing Texas. But it doesn’t matter who comes. We’re going be ready to play against everyone.”
The Rays went 2-4 against the Rangers this season, taking two of three in June at the Trop before getting swept in Texas as part of their 5-15 July funk.
The Rangers had their own struggles late in the season, going 18-23 from mid-August on. They lost several pitchers to injury, including ace Max Scherzer, but still won 90 games.
Rays manager Kevin Cash said Texas still presents a significant challenge.
“Good team, really good team,” he said. “A lot of offense. Pretty versatile offense with a good mix of righties, lefties, switch hitters. And then their pitching, they’ve done a nice job here lately. They’ve had injuries kind of like we’ve had here as of late, and they figured out ways to win games.”
The Rangers are expected to start left-hander Jordan Montgomery in the opener and Nate Eovaldi Wednesday in Game 2. The Rays are going with Tyler Glasnow Tuesday and Zach Eflin on Wednesday. Game 3, if necessary, will be Thursday.
Rays outfielder Josh Lowe said he expects a good matchup,
“We’re ready for whoever we play against,” he said. “I’m excited for the postseason. I know everybody in here is excited for the postseason. So it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
And that’s before factoring in the added incentive of the third —and highest-stakes — version of the family battle with older brother Nathaniel, the Rangers’ first baseman.
“Hasn’t really sunk in, but either way it’s going to be a lot of fun playing against him, Josh Lowe said. “I thought that we would honestly see them a little farther down the road. But either way, my parents are going to be proud of this — two sons playing in the postseason — so it’s going to be awesome.”
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For the record, Nathaniel started the dialogue by firing off the first message.
“I won’t repeat what it says,” Josh said with a grin.
Cash is also pleased that the Rays are heading into the playoffs with some momentum.
Last year, they lost their last five regular-season games before being swept in two games in the Wild Card Series in Cleveland. Winning four of their last five games and scoring a combined 19 runs over the final two days this year was much better.
“Without a doubt,” Cash said. “Maybe my opinion’s wrong, but you want to feel good. And winning these last two — (Saturday’s) game was pretty exciting, (Sunday) to get all those runs, I’m happy about that.”
Both teams rested several starters Sunday and called up minor leaguers to start: Jacob Lopez for the Rays, and Wes Parsons for the Jays.
It worked out better for Tampa Bay, which took charge early with a seven-run, 12-batter second inning keyed by Jonathan Aranda’s grand slam. Lopez worked into the sixth, limiting use of the bullpen.
The Rays had a few other highlights, logging their 99th win (only the 100-win 2021 team has had more), setting team records for runs (860) and homers (230), Diaz winning the first battling title in franchise history, and rookie Junior Caminero hitting his first career home run.
“(Sunday) was a fun day all around,” Cash said.
The Rays quickly shifted their attention to the series with the Rangers, starting on the flight home Sunday night and continuing during and after Monday’s workout at the Trop, as they assess the availability of injured outfielders Luke Raley and Jose Siri in settling on a 26-man roster and review and refine their scouting reports.
Sunday morning, Cash and others met to go over reports on all three potential opponents. But with the Astros winning the West and the Jays now going to Minnesota as the No. 6 seed, the Rays will lock in on the Rangers, who led the AL in runs, average, OPS and homers.
“Their lineup’s pretty deep, but our pitchers are pretty good as well,” Lowe said. “It’s going to be a good matchup. They’ve got a good ballclub. We’ve got a good ballclub. Everybody we play against the rest of the year is going to have a good team.”
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