CLEVELAND – So much for “Tanking for Tito.” Maybe the Rays should have been “Triumphant for Toronto” instead.
Tampa Bay got what it expected against Cleveland — a matchup with a team that looked a lot like it, equipped with a dominant and dazzling game backed by a solid defense and a somewhat limited offense that was further challenged by the stage and the stakes.
The Rays came up short – swept by a cumulative margin of 3-1, with all the runs coming on homers – in two games, but that was their season.
In the days leading up to Friday’s opening, there was some self-deprecating banter among members of the organizations that the reason they were scheduled to start at noon was that it might take them all day to mark.
It wasn’t so funny as Saturday’s game went into the 15th inning and close to five o’clock before Guardians rookie Oscar Gonzalez ended it by striking out former Cleveland star Corey Kluber.
So did the Rays get what they deserved?
Although it has become somewhat of a popular narrative, the Rays didn’t lose on purpose in the final weeks of the season because they wanted to finish last in the wild card field and face Terry “Tito” Francona’s Guardians instead of finishing second and playing for the first wild card Blue Jays.
They were losing — their last five regular-season games, seven of eight, 9 of 11 and 12 of 16 — because they made an organizational decision that, more important than potential momentum and confidence, was to be as close to full strength for the playoffs as possible. possible.
So they rested key players and those suffering or recovering from injury instead of using them in regular season games that would have no impact other than whether they played in Cleveland or Toronto.
Similar styles made the Guardians matchup look more appealing. That, combined with the absence of key players in the Rays’ lineups and a few off-the-cuff decisions during the game, fuels the conspiracy theory that Tampa Bay prefers to play in Cleveland.
In fact, the Rays might have been more comfortable playing the Blue Jays. They were more familiar with how to attack them, knowing their bullpen was vulnerable, as the Mariners showed in their hitting. Plus, Tampa Bay had more success against Toronto, going 10-9 (including 5-5 at Rogers Center), compared to 2-4 against the Guardians (1-2 at each venue).
So, with the Rays having a strong feeling they would make the three-team wild card but not finish first and make it to home plate, they put that plan into play and let the road take them where it should. (It should also be noted that six of those games were against No. 1 Houston and three against Cleveland.)
“This year has been difficult in large part because of having so many players, key players, who have been unavailable due to injury,” president of baseball operations Eric Neander said before Friday’s opener. “Once we were in a position where we were getting close to a postseason berth, certainly once we secured one, we felt like we took a hard look at what we thought would give us the best chance to make the postseason.
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“It was less sensitivity to the opponent and it was a commitment to do everything we can to refresh this group, to strengthen them and I think ideally to be as strong as we have been physically, mentally, emotionally in quite some time.”
Yandy Diaz got most of the stretch to rest his sore left shoulder. Wonder Franco was given a few days until his arm felt good. Top relievers Jason Adam and Pete Fairbanks haven’t pitched since September 28.
Was the absence of some key players the reason for the Rays’ struggles of late? This was a team that showed resilience all year while losing a litany of star players.
Did it just create an atmosphere of losing that they couldn’t shake? After the regular season finale, manager Kevin Cash volunteered to tell the players, “We can stop being nasty. Now let’s find ways to win games.”
Or was it somehow the fallout from the Sept. 19 parking lot standoff between Randy Arozarena and Diaz? Since that night, Arozarena has gone 13-for-58, including 1-for-9 with five strikeouts in the playoffs, while Diaz was 4-for-8 in his limited regular-season action and 0-for-10 in wild-card games.
Neander said entering Friday’s game the Rays felt good about what they did and how they did it.
“A lot of those games weren’t as enjoyable for any of us, including our players, as we would have liked them to be,” he said. “But as we’re about to start this postseason run, the energy in our group and the confidence in our group — we’re going up against a good team — but I think these guys are ready to give it their best shot and I’m glad , that we prioritized what we did.”
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