By: Shane Petagna
The Tampa Bay Rays’ 2021 season has come to an end after losing the American League Division Series to the Boston Red Sox three games to one.
The franchise’s winningest team in the regular season could not carry their success into October in a series filled with great moments and even some controversy.
“To be honest, their season ended as I feared it would,” said sports journalism professor David Manack. “Pitching, more often than not, wins in the postseason.”
Tampa Bay got a fantastic pitching effort in game one. Shane McClanahan in his first postseason start had a great performance, allowing five hits over five scoreless innings. The offense gave a lead early, with rookie shortstop Wander Franco making his presence known with an RBI double in the first inning.
Randy Arozarena scored the first run in the first inning and built upon his incredible postseason aura later in the game. His 11th career postseason home run came in the fifth inning to put the Rays up 4-0, but Arozarena wasn’t satisfied. Reaching base on his second walk of the evening, he eventually made it to third base. Scouting Boston pitcher Josh Taylor’s windup, the timing was perfect to attempt a straight steal of home. Arozarena was safe and became the first player in postseason history to homer and steal home in the same game.
The Rays handed rookie right-hander Shane Baz the ball in game two. Baz allowed four hits and two runs in the first inning. However, Tampa Bay’s offense responded immediately, cutting the lead in half on a bases-loaded Yandy Diaz RBI single. The next batter, Jordan Luplow, caused Tropicana Field to become unglued after he blasted a fastball down the left field line for a go-ahead grand slam.
Boston would climb back into the game with long balls of their own from Xander Bogaerts, Alex Verdugo, and Kiké Hernandez. After tying the game, J.D. Martinez put Boston up for good by depositing a 2-2 slider 412 feet to dead center to make it an 8-5 game. Ji-Man Choi hit a homer of his own in the sixth, but it would not be enough. The game turned into a 14-6 rout in favor of Boston in the late innings and evened the series heading to Fenway Park.
Game three wasn’t any easier for Tampa Bay. Pitching is the backbone of their team, but starters unable to go deep into games will mess up bullpens, especially in the postseason.
Drew Rasmussen started for the Rays, and only made it through two innings before allowing three earned runs and putting Tampa Bay in an early hole. The bullpen became overexposed quickly in the series but kept things close in the game. The Rays’ offense staged a comeback in the eighth, spearheaded by Franco and Arozarena to tie the game. Both offenses stifled during the stalemate until the 13th inning.
In the top half of the inning, the rulebook shortchanged the Rays of a go-ahead run. With two outs, Kevin Kiermaeir crushed a ball to the warning track in right field, which bounced off the wall and the body of the right fielder and went out of play. Instead of the baserunner scoring easily from first base, a ground-rule double was called and put the baserunners on second and third. Mike Zunino struck out and had no runs scored. Christian Vazquez hit a walk-off homer in the bottom of the inning to hand the Rays a crushing defeat.
Game four took place the next day, and the Rays found themselves with their backs against the wall with the entire pitching staff spent. Collin McHugh opened and McClanahan came in relief on short rest. McHugh was excellent, but McClanahan allowed five earned runs over just 2/3 of an inning to put Tampa Bay in an early hold. The rest of the bullpen performed well to keep Boston’s lead in striking distance, and the offense was able to make a late comeback once for the second game in a row to tie the game in the eighth inning.
The comeback would end up being for nothing in the ninth for Tampa Bay. Game three hero Vazquez led off with a single and advanced to second base on a Christian Arroyo sacrifice bunt. The next batter, Travis Shaw, hit a weak infield single to third base, where the Rays desperately needed to get an out. A walk-off sacrifice fly in the next plate appearance scored the winning run and put the nail in the coffin for the Rays.
“Obviously I’m hyped for them [the Red Sox], but I honestly wanted to see the Rays win a World Series so there could be a parade,” said Aidan Lafferty, freshman marketing major. “I’m shocked they won, since the Rays were the favorite.”
The Rays accomplished so much this season but were unable to meet the aspiration set for themselves and the fanbase.
“These guys should be very proud, I know I am, of what was accomplished,” said manager Kevin Cash in a postgame interview. “You’re allowed to be proud and also disappointed at the same time.”
The Rays will return much of the core next season. If starting pitching can stay healthy, this team should be a contender once again.