Rays return to MLB postseason after difficult season

BALTIMORE — The Tampa Bay Rays clinched a playoff spot Sunday afternoon when the Texas Rangers fell to the Cleveland Guardians. The Rays were in the ninth inning of what became an 11-inning loss to the Baltimore Orioles at the time. They coughed up multiple late-inning leads. They squandered a chance to leave Baltimore tied for the American League East lead.

So it was an awkward way to clinch a postseason berth, all things considered, but the Rays will absolutely take it. Because a playoff berth of any kind this year feels like a gargantuan achievement.

“They’re all different,” Rays Manager Kevin Cash, who has now led Tampa Bay to five consecutive postseasons, said after the game. “It’s taken a lot to get here.”

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From afar, the Rays often feel inevitable. No one thinks twice when they take a roster full of players with short or even unimpressive major league résumés and transform it into a juggernaut. No one thinks twice when they lose a pitcher or two to injury and unearth a comparable one to replace him. By now, it would be more surprising if they didn’t.

But this year has required something more, more mining their system for talent, more mining the waiver wires for pitching depth — more mining of their collective will, to put it simply, because many of the players on whom this team planned to lean are no longer available.

In fact, since they won 13 consecutive games to begin what seemed destined to be a charmed season, the Rays have encountered as much calamity as anyone in baseball, making this one of the most challenging seasons those who have been around this team can remember.

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“There’s no denying it,” Cash said when asked if this is one of the more trying seasons of his managerial career. What follows is not an exhaustive list:

Starter Jeffrey Springs was pitching like a Cy Young candidate when he learned he needed Tommy John surgery in April. Fellow starter Drew Rasmussen had a 2.62 ERA when he needed elbow surgery just before the all-star break. Annual Cy Young contender and bona fide ace Shane McClanahan needed Tommy John in August.

Key hitters Brandon Lowe, Manuel Margot and Taylor Walls all missed substantial time. Outfielder Jose Siri went down with a broken hand, just in time for the stretch run. Not 24 hours after he was the hero of Friday night’s win over the Orioles, slugger Luke Raley collided with a team staffer while shagging flyballs in the outfield and is now dealing with neck soreness.

And beyond the injuries, the Rays also dealt with off-field issues when their young star Wander Franco was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a minor. Franco is on the restricted list while Major League Baseball and Dominican authorities investigate the allegations.

“I really commend our group, our players, they’ve really been able to put their heads down through the injuries and other things that have taken place that they’ve stuck together and performed at a very, very high level. So that’s rewarding,” Cash said. “But in the middle of that, there are some taxing nights.”

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Many of those taxing nights have required creative maneuvering with a constantly shifting pitching staff. The Rays are used to taking a different approach, to using openers and getting wins out of relievers. But this year was supposed to be a little more traditional, a little more defined by a steady group of starters than a pitching staff capable of being creative.

But even with all the injuries, their rotation began Sunday with a 3.85 ERA, third-lowest in the majors. And they have a top-ten bullpen by almost any obvious measure except star power: On Sunday, a day they began with a chance to clinch a playoff spot, their bullpen included three different pitchers who had been released by losing teams at some point this season (Erasmo Ramirez, Chris Devenski, Jake Diekman) and another (Shawn Armstrong) whom they signed after he was designated for assignment last year.

“They take the time to get to know you, what makes you good, everyone is just being themselves,” said Devenski, echoing so many others who came to the Rays curious about what allows this organization to do this, year after year. “The communication is really good. They remind you what makes you good.”

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What makes the Rays good this year is a consistently productive offense. Only three teams have scored more runs than they have. The Rays entered Sunday’s games with the fourth-highest team OPS in baseball and the second-most homers in the American League.

“They’ve always been versatile and athletic. And normally they have been able to have a ton of platoon-type players they are able to interchange,” Orioles Manager Brandon Hyde said. “They still have that.”

And they still have a chance in October, like they always seem to do, the one team that is always as easy to underestimate as it is impossible to overlook. They are headed to the playoffs, unceremonious though their arrival was Sunday. The crazy thing is, they could still take the AL East title there with them.

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