BALTIMORE — The confluence of scenes in the Rays clubhouse after Sunday’s 5-4, 11-inning loss to the Orioles spoke to the mixed and myriad emotions of the afternoon.
There was reason to feel good, as Tampa Bay, due to Texas’ loss earlier in the day, clinched a playoff berth for a franchise-record fifth straight year.
Manager Kevin Cash addressed his players to congratulate them for the impressive accomplishment, but that was about the extent of the celebration. Plastic sheeting for a bigger wet and wild party sat atop a row of lockers after being quickly rolled up following the Orioles’ victory. Later, a group of players circled up to do a shot of liquor before heading out.
But there was plenty to be disappointed about as well, given how the Rays lost the game — blowing leads in the ninth and 10th innings — and the impact it had on their bigger goal of winning the American League East.
Tampa Bay has been determined to reclaim first place after holding it from its dazzling start to the season until being passed by Baltimore in late July and felt good after winning the first two games of the series. But it lost the next two, and its path is now more arduous.
The Rays (92-59) are in a tough spot, two games back with 11 left to play, plus the additional hurdle of the Orioles (93-56) holding the tiebreaker. The quietness of the room, and the hushed tones in which some players talked, reflected that.
“We clinched the playoffs, and we lost (Sunday); that just kind of makes it conflicting,” said infielder Brandon Lowe, the Rays’ most veteran position player. “It’s hard to celebrate after a loss, whichever loss that it is. So we’re going to understand it. It’s great. We’re going in the right direction, but hopefully we can celebrate later on in this regular season.”
Baseball operations president Erik Neander said it was possible to feel both extremes.
“Certainly, you feel the sting of losing a game like that and you understand its importance,” he said. But for this team to be in this position speaks so much more to them than the outcome of this particular game.
“With each passing moment here, and by the time we get on that plane, I think the group will, it’ll sink in a little bit. I think there’ll be a lot more to be proud of, a lot more pride than there is the disappointment that comes with just coming off the field.”
The series was competitive, and Sunday’s game was played with the intensity of a postseason meeting. (It could well be a preview, because if the Rays wind up as the top wild card and win their first-round series, they would face the Orioles in the Division Series.)
“As close to World Series baseball and postseason baseball that I’ve felt in a long time,” Lowe said.
The Rays took an early lead on a Lowe homer. The Orioles got even in the fourth. Tampa Bay went back ahead in the eighth on back-to-back homers by Tristan Gray, who made his big-league debut Saturday and his first start Sunday, and Christian Bethancourt.
Indicative of the importance of the game, Cash summoned closer Pete Fairbanks in the eighth inning, the first time this season he has been called upon before the ninth. Fairbanks was used for two innings, which he hadn’t done since 2021.
It didn’t work out. Fairbanks allowed a homer to Adley Rutschman in the eighth that cut the lead to 3-2, then the tying run in the ninth on a double that Adam Frazier laced down the shift-vacated third-base line.
“I don’t know what to tell you on that one,” Fairbanks said. “That is 2 inches fair and rattles around (in the corner), and you get a run out of it.”
The Rays went ahead in the top of the 10th when Manuel Margot, the runner placed at second, came around to score on infield outs by Gray and pinch-hitter Harold Ramirez that didn’t clear the mound.
But the Orioles rallied again in the 10th, Rutschman delivering the tying run with a two-out single off Shawn Armstrong.
As frustrating as the day was, Cash said the Rays still had something to be proud for extending their streak of playoff appearances that started in 2019.
“Really excited, really proud of this group,” he said. “They’re all special in their own way. Just spoke to the club really briefly, congratulated the guys in the room, the guys that have contributed throughout that are not in the room with us.
‘It’s taken a lot to get here. I think everybody realizes that. The injuries, plenty of things have taken place, but really commend this group and happy that we’re in. And now, let’s see where we go.”
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