BALTIMORE – A few minutes after Cedric Mullins’ sacrifice fly landed in the glove of Dominican Manuel Margot, Rays manager Kevin Cash briefly addressed his team to loud cheers out on the field. He congratulated them on securing a postseason berth for the fifth consecutive year, acknowledged the effort it took to get there and praised everyone who contributed along the way.
“It cost a lot to get here. I think everyone is aware of that,” Cash said. “I really commend this group and I’m glad we’re here. And now let’s see where we get.”
But the Rays were hoping for a different kind of celebration Sunday afternoon. That was evident in the visitors’ clubhouse, where furniture had been removed and plastic sheeting had been rolled up over a row of lockers. Instead of loudly spraying champagne, a small group had a quiet drink.
Yes, the Rays clinched a playoff spot thanks to the Rangers’ 9-2 loss to the Guardians. But about 35 minutes into the game, Tampa Bay gave up a lead in the ninth inning and ultimately lost to Baltimore 5-4 in 11 innings. That’s how the two American League East rivals split this crucial four-game series.
“This is a really good team and it was an incredible baseball game,” said Erik Neander, the Rays’ president of baseball operations. “Of course it burns you to lose a game like that and you understand how important it is. But the fact that this team is in this position says a lot more about our guys than the outcome of this particular game.”
The Rays are one of three teams, along with the Braves and Dodgers, that have made the postseason every year since 2019, and the AL West-leading Astros are likely to join that group. They are the eighth team in the Wild Card era (since 1995) to make the playoffs five years in a row.
That history is one reason the Rays aren’t content with reaching the postseason for the ninth time since 2008.
They still have their sights set on a fifth AL East title and believe avoiding a best-of-three wild card series would give them the best path to winning the World Series in franchise history. Sunday’s result wasn’t a guarantee for either club, but it did make the Rays’ chances of achieving that goal a little more difficult.
“I can’t say I’m very excited at the moment. Maybe give it some time,” admitted aide Pete Fairbanks. “It’s obviously something. We know we’re there, and now it’s time to focus on what we really want.”
The Rays and Orioles entered Sunday at Camden Yards with a magic number of one, needing a win in the series finale or a loss for the Mariners or Rangers. Technically, they made the postseason at the same time and were the first two teams to qualify for the AL, as Texas’ loss in Cleveland ended just moments before Adam Frazier’s double to left field against Fairbanks in the ninth inning, at to balance the shares at Camden Yards.
Twice the Rays came within one point of winning Sunday’s game and clinching the series.
They led 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning after consecutive home runs from shortstop Tristan Gray and Panamanian Christian Bethancourt. But Adleyrutschman hit a home run in the eighth against Fairbanks (requiring six outs for the first time since June 22, 2021, a clear sign of the game’s importance) to close the gap, and then Frazier tied it with two Outs out in the ninth.
The Rays scored a run with two groundouts in the tenth, only forrutschman to tie it on Shawn Armstrong’s two-out single to center. After holding Tampa Bay scoreless in the 11th, Baltimore went for a run and achieved its goal.
Ryan O’Hearn’s sacrifice bunt moved automatic runnerrutschman to third base, and then Mullins hit a long fly ball up the middle that allowed the Orioles and their adoring home crowd to celebrate the club’s first postseason berth since 2016.
“Two great teams faced each other. “We did everything we could to win the game, and then they responded and did everything we could to win again,” said Cash, who was sent off for justifying a middle swing in the ninth inning became. “We saw great pitching, great defense and timely hitting. We’ve seen everything. In the end we came up a little short.”
With the AL likely No. 1 seed and No. 1 Wild Card seed, it’s possible – perhaps even likely – that Sunday won’t be the last time the Rays and Orioles see each other this year. They could see each other again in October.
The Rays are still hoping their biggest celebration is yet to come.
“If you look at the bigger picture, it’s playoff baseball. It’s what you want to do. That’s the goal,” recalls Brandon Lowe. “In a way, the next goal begins, winning the World Series. This is another step we have to take.”