By: Shane Petagna
The defending American League champions will be heading back to the postseason. On Saturday, Sept. 25, the Tampa Bay Rays secured their second straight AL East division title after a 7-3 victory over the Miami Marlins.
“The fans were long anticipating the last out and once they finally got it there were celebrations all around,” said Jenna Robertson, a freshman nursing major who attended the game Saturday night.
There’s a lot for the Rays to celebrate. The division crown also marks Tampa Bay’s third straight postseason appearance. In addition, on Wednesday, Sept. 22, the Rays also locked up the AL’s number one seed and will be guaranteed home-field advantage until the World Series after a win against the Houston Astros. The 7-0 victory also set the franchise record for wins in a season at 98 with four more games left to play.
“I don’t think we’re satisfied, which is really cool,” said Rays pitcher Drew Rasmussen in a post-game interview. “It’s a good mindset for the team to have, especially after the bitter taste left in their mouth at the end of last season’s magical playoff run.”
During a pandemic season, only their World Series games were played in front of fans. This year a true playoff atmosphere can finally come back, and Tropicana Field should be electric.
“Rays fans are going to be ecstatic in and out of the stadium,” said Katelyn Clemens, a sophomore human performance major, who is also an employee for the Rays. “The Rays were so close last year to winning the World Series and this year the fans want nothing more than to see them finally clinch this title.”
Last season’s postseason run was built on the heroics from some of the most unexpected players, such as Mike Brosseau’s home run in game 5 of the ALDS or Brett Phillips’ walk-off hit in game 4 of the World Series. Randy Arozarena’s record 29 hits and 10 home runs in a single postseason certainly helped too.
The Rays’ identity has always been their resourcefulness. Despite having the lowest payroll in all of Major League Baseball, they are one of the league’s best. Tampa Bay has some of the best pitching in the league, but are also missing some of their biggest arms. Their two best pitchers from last year, Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell, won’t be available. Glasnow is out after having season ending Tommy John surgery and Snell was dealt to San Diego in the offseason. Instead, the Rays will have to rely on their bullpen and young arms more than they ever have.
The Rays have a tentative starting rotation of Luis Patino, Ryan Yarbrough, Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, and rookie fireballer Shane Baz. However, with manager Kevin Cash’s pitching strategy, he is never afraid to give a starter a quick hook in favor of his bullpen.
The Rays’ bullpen is one of the best in baseball. As a team, their 3.31 earned run average and 1.15 WHIP (walks + hits divided by innings pitched) is third and second best in the majors respectively. If the Rays can get into their bullpen with a lead, it’s going to be very difficult for teams to come back. Andrew Kitteridge and Pete Fairbanks are two names that are going to be called frequently in the postseason to hold down leads.
Offensively, the Rays feature a balanced lineup with much of the same core from the 2020 team. New at shortstop is rookie Wander Franco, an extremely skilled player who constantly makes an impact while on the field. Franco is fifth in WAR (wins above replacement) on the team, despite only playing in 66 games and is in the middle of a 43-game on-base streak. The Rays also need Brandon Lowe, their most well-rounded bat, and Randy Arozarena to continue their regular season success into October. For power in the lineup, Nelson Cruz and catcher Mike Zunino are dangerous anytime they step up to the plate.
The Rays are still seeking the franchise’s first World Series title. They get another crack at winning it all, and they have a great opportunity to do so this year. The emphasis on analytics has doomed the team in the past, but it’s the Rays’ identity. Without their use of advanced statistics, the Rays would not be having the success they are enjoying right now. 11 wins is all Tampa Bay needs. The Rays were so close last year, and they once again have the talent to get it done. In the end it will come down to who does or doesn’t step up. Anything can happen in October. The Rays will start their quest for the World Series on Thursday, October 7 at Tropicana Field.