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For Rays, getting into the playoffs has been the easy part

Answers and explanations for three straight early exits remain elusive, but they’re not the only team coming up short.
 
Rays players look on as the Rangers celebrate their 7-1 victory in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series on Oct. 4 at Tropicana Field.
Rays players look on as the Rangers celebrate their 7-1 victory in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series on Oct. 4 at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 9, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have a good thing going, one of only four teams to make the playoffs in each of the past five seasons.

But they haven’t gotten where they strive to be, which is holding the championship trophy after the final game. And being ousted in their first round the last three years has made that shortcoming more vexing.

While frustration over their most recent quick dismissal at home by the Rangers has dulled over the ensuing two months — and perhaps allowed for some solace in losing to the eventual champs — there hasn’t been any revelation providing clarity over how and why.

Was it just the obvious, that they didn’t pitch, hit or play well for two games? Did their injuries and absences catch up to them? An absence of playoff experience? Something deeper, like roster construction or philosophy? Momentum? Matchups?

“I don’t know what the answer is,” manager Kevin Cash said. “But I think the more times we can get there, good things are going to happen. In the moment, it is very frustrating.”

They do have company, and consolation, in that no one else in baseball seems to know for sure either.

Especially this past year, as the five winningest regular-season teams — the Braves (104 wins), Orioles (101), Dodgers (100), Rays (99) and Brewers (92) — all lost in their first-round series.

And the two World Series teams — the 90-win Rangers and 84-win Diamondbacks — got into the tournament as wild cards.

‘Anything can happen’ in playoffs

Rays centerfielder Jose Siri is unable to make a catch on a fly ball hit by Rangers shortstop Corey Seager during Game 1 of the Wild Card Series against Texas.
Rays centerfielder Jose Siri is unable to make a catch on a fly ball hit by Rangers shortstop Corey Seager during Game 1 of the Wild Card Series against Texas. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“It is what it is,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Anything can happen in playoff baseball.”

It can and does.

The top three teams were left to wrestle with not playing for five days, as the supposed reward for winning their division and getting a first-round bye.

“It’s interesting,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “For every small group of managers that say it’s a disadvantage, there’s going to be another handful or a dozen that say, ‘Bring it on, I’ll take the five days off.’

“So, I’m sure there’s a conversation, but at the end of the day we just got to play better with the construction of the rules.”

Sam Fuld has seen the playoffs from several perspectives, as a player for the small-market Rays and A’s, then with the Phillies in a hybrid coaching/player information role followed by the last three years as general manager.

“There’s a lot of evidence that there’s myriad ways of winning the World Series championship,” Fuld said. “So there’s definitely not a blueprint.”

The Phillies got to the 2022 World Series and the NL Championship Series this past year primarily with power, from their veteran hitters and hard-throwing relievers. Fuld also noted an important intangible, saying they played with “a fearlessness” that allows them to navigate matters of experience, momentum and fans.

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“In terms of the roster construction, it just helps to have a lot of talent. I think that’s a simple way of answering it,” Fuld said. “And I think you can win in a ton of different ways in terms of how you distribute your talent across all 26 roster spots.

“But clearly, I think having a group of guys that want the moment and having that culture of believing, upping the focus and not letting any external pressures of the playoffs environment get to you, I think is most important.”

Depth over stars?

Rays second baseman Curtis Mead is seen at home plate after committing the last out, ending the game and Wild Card Series against the Rangers on Oct. 4.
Rays second baseman Curtis Mead is seen at home plate after committing the last out, ending the game and Wild Card Series against the Rangers on Oct. 4. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

One of the theories suggested about the Rays is that they win with depth during the daily grind of the regular season, but don’t have the star quality for some of the elite postseason matchups.

That they’ve lost their last seven playoff games, and the three first-round series, since their unsuccessful run to the 2020 World Series (played on a condensed schedule) adds to the discussion. Overall, they are 5-9 in playoff series (though they won single Wild Card Games in 2013 and 2019), including another unsuccessful World Series appearance in 2008.

“I know that Tampa Bay, maybe they don’t have the national stardom that some other clubs have, but they’re chock full of really good players,” Fuld said. “Sometimes injuries are just tough to predict and tough to prevent. Luckily, in the last couple of years, we’ve been a really healthy ballclub. There’s no doubt that that has helped us.”

Though the early exits gnaw at the Rays, they try not to see a collective thread in the circumstances.

In 2021, they won an AL-most 100 games and the Division Series opener at home, then lost three straight to Boston. In 2022, they stumbled in as the last wild card, losing their last five games, and were held to one run over 24 innings at Cleveland.

This past season, the ongoing string of injuries (including three top starters) plus the absence of Wander Franco (for potential disciplinary reasons) eventually became too much to overcome, as they gave up 11 runs and scored only one in two home losses to Texas.

Each year is different

Yandy Diaz walks back to the dugout after flying out in the sixth inning against the Rangers in the final game of the Wild Card Series.
Yandy Diaz walks back to the dugout after flying out in the sixth inning against the Rangers in the final game of the Wild Card Series. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Rays baseball operations president Erik Neander said 2023 should be treated separately given how much they overcame just to get to the playoffs, “an awful lot of pride” in doing so offsetting the disappointment in the result.

But they want, and know they need, to do better.

“These things are hard to predict,” Neander said. “It is difficult. There’s a lot of this you just can’t control.

“We still believe the best chance you have is to get in. Really strong starting pitching is helpful. Really talented hitters and offenses that can create opportunities in a variety of ways — speed, power, contact, bunts, situational stuff. All that stuff comes to matter. The one-run games come to be more important.

“Those are things over the years that they’re not lost on us. But to try to get things synched up in a way where you really feel like you can make a run, it’s hard. … We’re going to stay at it.”

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