Early exit stings Rays after 100-win year: 'I truly believed we were going to win the World Series'

The best team in the American League is going home before the AL Championship Series. Hey, it happens, particularly against a red-hot, punishing opponent in a best-of-five AL Division Series.

But when the team packing its bags and boxing its valuables for the winter is the Tampa Bay Rays, it always inspires an entirely different set of questions.

Did a questionable pitching decision hasten their demise? (This year, lifting Collin McHugh after two scoreless innings was far more defensible than Blake Snell's infamous hook in their final game of 2020).

Would a more robust payroll helped them get over the hump? (It's definitely not easy digging out of a $100 million hole against the Boston Red Sox).

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And is Tampa Bay simply not built to bang with the big boys as October rolls on?

Well, you'll definitely get some pushback on that one.

"I truly believed we were going to win the World Series," says center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who played two splendid games at Fenway Park only to come up on the wrong end both times, the final blow a 6-5, walk-off loss in Game 4 Monday night.

"I really did, with our pitching and our bullpen, just with how many runs we can score offensively. We had all the right pieces to do it, but we just got beat by a really good team over there."

Rays shortstop Wander Franco (5) celebrates with Kevin Kiermaier (39) hitting a two-run home run against the Red Sox in Game 4 of the ALDS.
Rays shortstop Wander Franco (5) celebrates with Kevin Kiermaier (39) hitting a two-run home run against the Red Sox in Game 4 of the ALDS.

No disputing that, either. A Red Sox team that churned to 92 wins and reversed a September free fall just in time played up to its pedigree, banging out 42 hits over the final 29 innings of the series to blitz the Rays.

A Rays staff that's always greater than the sum of its parts could only suppress Rafael Devers, Kiké Hernandez and the uncannily clutch Christian Vazquez for so long.

"We just could not create that swing and miss that we've done so well throughout the regular season," says Rays manager Kevin Cash. "They really had a good approach. It felt like there was constant pressure.

"There were no easy outs."

Cash spent the bulk of the winter answering for his hook of Snell in the sixth inning of World Series Game 6. In Monday's Game 4, he pulled McHugh – a reliever by trade – after two scoreless innings.

His replacement, Game 1 starter Shane McClanahan, proceeded to get pummeled in a third inning that saw Boston plate five runs. Yet while McClanahan got pounded while pitching on three days' rest, McHugh, Cash noted, had thrown 40 pitches himself two days earlier.

No, this was a matter of personnel, not second-guessing.

It's easy to forget that the 2020 Rays had three true horses to trot out – Snell, veteran Charlie Morton and fireballing righty Tyler Glasnow. Snell was traded, Morton was not re-signed and Glasnow suffered a season-ending elbow injury.

Still, the Rays churned to a franchise-best 100 wins, their 3.67 ERA and 1.17 WHIP leading the AL.

But October baseball is a different animal, and when Cash looked at his pitching options for this series, it was topped not by 200-inning hosses but by two rookies named Shane – McClanahan and Baz, the former who debuted barely a year ago and the latter with just three big league starts to his name.

Perhaps we could have seen this Boston shellacking coming, then. Cash certainly did not.

"We had high aspirations to get deep in this thing," he says. "We ran into a Red Sox team that they just beat us, no other way around it. They got the big hits."

Yet with the fruit from a loaded farm system almost entirely plucked, the Rays' window is only now opening. Shortstop Wander Franco put on a jarring performance in this ALDS, batting .368 (7 for 19) with a crucial, two-run homer in both Game 3 and Game 4. McClanahan and Baz should form the bedrock of another strong rotation.

The X factor will always be if team ownership will be willing to commit resources to rounding out the roster. The club's bizarre proposal to play in two markets could inspire the franchise to go in either direction, spending-wise: Increase payroll to drum up interest and support, or keep it flat to prove a radical relocation solution is necessary.

Either way, the foundation is there. The Rays are disappointed, yet terming their season a disappointment is a little more complicated.

They will have to find another way in 2022, but the cupboard is full, and another opportunity awaits.

"We would have loved to get back to a World Series and try to take that next step," says Kiermaier. "It just wasn't our time, but the winning way, it's going to continue here.

"There's just too much talent in our organization."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tampa Bay Rays' exit vs. Boston Red Sox stings after 100-win season