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(Still counts. Mattering is different than counting.)
They won two other games.
In August, Justin Verlander beat them by, like, 14. Actually, exactly 14. Which is how a ballclub goes about winning four of seven games and getting outscored by 13 runs.
The 107-win Astros lost season series to five teams, including the Rays, and also including the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds, which only illustrates how some days people may just not feel like playing baseball.
And, also, how the difference between the Astros’ 107 wins and the Rays’ 96 — 97 as of Wednesday night’s game in Oakland, by a score of 5-1, in which a wild-card record crowd cheered the 54,005 who showed up and mourned the nine who did not — is perhaps not as vast as it would appear. That is to say, the Astros would seem to be the far better team and the Rays will not grant them that for at least another three games, if at all.
This best-of-five American League Division Series opens Friday in Houston, two days after the Rays spent 94 pitches from stand-in ace Charlie Morton to get there, and so the wild-card game achieved its objectives of being interesting, being scary and being punitive. The more accomplished team — the Astros — waits, rests and schemes. The Rays, alternatively, flew to Oakland, eliminated the A’s with the sort of surgical game they can play and often did for the prior six months, the right pitch at the right time, the right pitcher at the right time, and just enough offense — in this case four home runs, all hit to their middle or opposite fields. Then they rushed the field, carried on for a while, had a few beers in the clubhouse, laughed at what a time they were having, waved away the cigar smoke and boarded a flight for Houston, for Verlander, Cole and Zack Greinke, in that order, and if that seems like a big job it’s because it will be.
That’s what’s cool and satisfying about being a Tampa Bay Ray. It’s always a big job. The other ballparks are fuller and louder. The other rosters are better paid. The other players they know from the magazine covers and the television specials, from the MVP ceremonies, from all the crazy free-agency hype and fancy endorsement deals.
None of which has anything to do with who plays the better baseball.
So they bussed in from San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon, over the bridge and past the warehouses and junkyards and toward the six light banks that loom over the Coliseum to play a team that won 97 games, that like them assumes every job is a big job, whose center-field seats rise up like the leading edge of a drawbridge, whose fans wave flags and blow horns and bang drums and drape handmade signs over rusted handrails and stained concrete.
And it is perfect. It summons their best baseball. Morton grants it wasn’t his finest start, but it was, “all right,” and then the bullpen, men by the names of Diego Castillo and Nick Anderson and Emilio Pagán, allow three singles and strike out eight over the final four innings.
“The postseason is just different,” said Morton, who has pitched in four of them. “All it takes is the right timing. For your team to get hot.”
He gestured, presumably toward Houston.
“One of those two guys over there is going to win the Cy Young,” he said. “That’s a fact. They got Greinke. And pitch by pitch, inning by inning, we’re just going to have to be better.”
The Rays hit home runs like almost everyone else. They just weren’t gluttonous about it. They hit 217, not even the franchise record. They had four guys with at least 20, one with 33. The man who hit two on Wednesday night was none of those. In fact, Yandy Diaz, up until Sunday, was healing from a foot injury, grinding through at-bats in Port Charlotte, Florida, against a bunch of 19- and 20-year-olds in the Instructional League. By the time of his seventh-inning single, he’d had seven big-league at-bats since July. And in consecutive at-bats against A’s lefty Sean Manaea, against consecutive up-and-away fastballs, Diaz homered to right field. The balls landed within about 20 feet of each other. Same preparation. Same approach. Same mechanics. Same thoughts. Same results.
Then they get on an airplane and try it again in another day or two, take on that job, see if that one isn’t big too.
“We’re not ready to stop at all,” center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “We’ll see what happens. We can beat anyone in baseball and people know that. You know, people said there’s no way we could win 95 or 96 games. And that’s OK. We can do special things if we go handle our business. We’ve done that since Day 1.”
On Day 1, turns out, they lost to Justin Verlander in St. Petersburg. He was really good that day. And the point still stands. Because, after that, the Rays did that pitch-by-pitch, inning-by-inning thing and won those 96 games. Then that 97th. And then had more games to play.
“Nobody likes facing our pitching staff,” third baseman Matt Duffy said. “I know Houston’s got the starting rotation. I think through a whole season there’s not many pitching staffs that can do what ours did.”
Part of the achievement — the Rays had the lowest team ERA in the American League — was pitching their way into the playoffs with shortened seasons from Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow. By the end of September, both were pitching, and generally pitching well, but limited in their innings. One, probably Glasnow, will get the start Friday against Verlander. Snell, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, gets Saturday and Cole.
“What they did in the course of the regular season,” Chaim Bloom, the club’s senior vice president, baseball operations, said of the Astros, “they’ve earned the right to be favorites. People can call them that.”
And outfielder Tommy Pham added, “They’re good. And everyone is ready for the moment.”
First, though, Pham took one last look back at what they’d done together, not over six or seven months, but over three hours. It wasn’t going to be easy. But it was going to be a helluva time. The job was going to be big. And aren’t they always. It’s what’s different about being a Tampa Bay Ray. What’s great about it.
“That was pretty cool, huh?” Pham said. “But I’m from Vegas. I already like the lights and stuff like that.”
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