NS. PETERSBURG – The Rays have had a lot to celebrate in recent years.
In 2019, the final year BC (Before Coronavirus), their return to the playoffs, then a wildcard game win in Oakland, was crowned last weekend in Toronto for the first time in six years.
During last year’s pandemic, fanless and entertaining season, they booked a return trip to the playoffs in Baltimore and then took the coveted American League East title after beating the Mets in New York.
Although the Rays came home for the extended first-round playoff series and the Blue Jays swept away with limited family members, given Major League Baseball’s mandate for muted and socially distant celebrations, as well as the team housed at the Renaissance Vinoy Hotel Quarantine.
Then they made their way to the MLB bubble in San Diego, where they defeated the Yankees in the AL Division Series and the Astros in the AL Championship Series and were similarly restricted from partying at Petco Park. Then it went on to Arlington, Texas, where they lost in the World Series to the Dodgers.
But the Rays stepped into the game Tuesday night with a chance – they needed a win and a Yankee loss and A’s – to do something they haven’t done since the historic Game 162 drama festival in 2011: get a playoff spot at Tropicana Field and party in front of their fans.
“It would mean anything,” said midfielder Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-serving Rays player and team leader. “I sit here and always say in spring training that we’re just trying to do a show for our fans all season, give people a reason to come to the games and fill that space and really see what for a special group we have available.
“And here we are in that position, six months later from all of the spring training interviews, and we’re at one particular point in the best division in baseball, I don’t care what you say. I don’t care.” It’s so special to be part of it. If we could do it in front of our home fans for the first time – especially for a guy like me, I’ve been here since (2014), part of the teams that didn’t have the best records – it would mean the world to me personally.
“But I know what it would mean for everyone in this clubhouse and shelter, including all the fans in the stands. Hopefully we can step on the plate and let it happen. It would be a memory that no one can take away from us. “
Something the Rays have never done is take the league title at home, which if they win enough – and the runner-up Red Sox lose enough – they could get there by the trop final of the regular season on Sunday.
The three previous times they finished as Beasts of the East, they toast before their larger budget rivals as visitors.
They were in Detroit in 2008 when they lost an afternoon game, then got back together after eating or visiting the nearby casino in Comerica Park. They switched from street clothes to party clothes (shorts, t-shirts, goggles) to – of all things – make sure the Yankees eliminate the Red Sox in a twice delayed rain game that ended just before 1am
In 2010, they were playing an afternoon final in Kansas City when they got the news – through pitcher David Price running from the clubhouse to the dugout, screaming at the top of his mouth – that they’d won the title because the Yankees had lost (the Rays held the tie-break). But that wasn’t enough as the Rays lost 2-0, rallied in ninth place, and then won in 12 innings to directly win the division, which in the opinion of then manager Joe Maddon was important to them.
And last year they were at Citi Field where they took the title with three games left in the shortened season by sticking to beating the Mets.
The Rays celebrated by popping confetti cannons instead of champagne bottles and dousing each other with silly string instead of beer. There were also some cigars smoked in the dugout and a parking lot dance party that helped introduce the world to the greatness of Randy Arozarena and Brett Phillips.
“I’m completely dry right now, which I’m not a big fan of,” said Kiermaier at the time. “But you have to adapt to what is required of us.”
Now they hope to have two wet and wild parties at home by the end of the week.
“I think we can taste it – I’d be lying to you if I told you the dressing room isn’t really good right now,” said rookie pitcher Shane McClanahan. “It would be great (to clinch at home). (Last Friday) night it had a taste of playoff atmosphere. The place rocked. The place was full. And I would lie to you if I told you we don’t talk about it in the dugout. So it’s really exciting to have the opportunity to do this in front of the big fans (Tampa Bay Area). That is really what we want. “
Manager Kevin Cash, who seemed itchy about a possible clinch even when answering a question, nonetheless gave the house party tacit approval. “I don’t like to talk about it before it happens,” he said, “but yeah, you want to do special things in front of your fans at your ballpark.”
Also, emergency responder Andrew Kittredge, a Ray since 2017, said there is a natural curiosity about what it would be like.
“I’m really excited to see what the clubhouse will hopefully look like when everything is covered with tarpaulin,” said Kittredge. “Hopefully we’ll get a chance here. If not, it will be special when we have the chance to shine no matter where it is. But it would be great to do it here. “
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