Many of us had cleared our October calendars for a long playoff run.
We had our Game 5 tickets.
We had our ALCS tickets.
But it’s over tonight, and somehow the Rays — a 100 win team that dominated baseball’s strongest division, couldn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs.
Although the Rays were eliminated in four games, this was a close series. Each team had one dominant game, and the last two were coin flips.
The first inning for the Rays seemed to presage what would be a tough night. Randy Arozarena was robbed of a hit by Hunter Renfroe, Wander Franco was called out on a strike three that was well above the zone (come on, Wander knows the zone better than Ron Kulpa.)
Collin McHugh was the perfect choice to open the game for the Rays — experienced, cool, and able to get through two relatively quiet innings.
But the Rays could get little traction against Edwin Rodriguez, who I guess is more effective on short rest (because he certainly got hit hard when he opened the series last week). In the Rays third, for the first time a Rays hitter got to three balls! Austin Meadows worked a full count and then proceeded to foul off successive pitches, a 17- pitch at bat. But in the end he failed to do was was needed, e.g. put the ball in play. And in a game where a team is ready to use its entire bullpen it’s not even clear that running up the starters pitch count has any significance.
In the third inning the Rays went to Shane McClanahan on short rest. It was a risk of course, but really what were the options here after using pretty much everyone else, in some cases for multiple innings, last night? But it turned out to the the wrong — and ultimately fateful - choice. He gave up a single, a walk and then a three run homerun. Many more Red Sox hits ensued. Do you all really want a blow by blow? I didn’t think so. I averted my eyes but at the end of the inning the Red Sox had five runs.
This certainly appeared to end the Rays hopes. But to their credit they did not give up. After too many hitless innings they scored a run in the fifth inning (Jordan Luplow double and two productive outs to get him home). And can there be a Rays game where Wander Franco is not part of the offense? Of course not. Franco’s two-run homer in the 6th got the Rays within two. Damn you Wander stop giving us hope.
There was further chipping in the 8th inning, with Kiermaier and Zunino lacing back to back doubles. And then Randy Arozarena, Mr. October....singled to tie the score.
I had written the game off and suddenly the Rays were back in it. Maybe this makes the final result all the more heartbreaking?
Red Sox looked like they got a break in the bottom of the error: Franco’s throwing error on Verdugo’s grounder allowed the Red Sox to start the inning with a man on second. But fortunately for the Rays, Verdugo decided to try for third on a fly out to Kiermaier. You really want to test the KK arm?
A 90 MPH rocket from Kevin Kiermaier! pic.twitter.com/uU54azFJiW— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) October 12, 2021
But a tie is still not a win. In the bottom of the ninth, JP Feyereisen allowed a lead off single, and the Red Sox sacrificed the potential winning run to second. Pinch hitting, Shaw hit a grounder to third, and Diaz did not make a great throw to first; Shaw was credited with an infield single while the lead runner got to third.
That brought up Hernandez, who has terrorized Rays pitching this series. I suppose Cash could have considered walking him, but with a runner on first the double play was already possible and it’s not as though facing Devers with a man on third is such a great alternative. So Feyereisen pitched to him, he flew out deep enough to score the run from third, and the game — and series - and season — were over.
This is such a disappointing ending to a great season. It brings two other similar experiences to mind. I remember the very good 2010 Rays who won their division and got eliminated by a hot Texas Rangers team. That Rays team seemed like perhaps their most talented ever and didn’t get out of the ALDS.
And moving on to a different sport, I think of the Tampa Bay Lightning of 2018-2019. They just pummeled the rest of the league in the regular season. And then lost — got swept! — in the first round in a year that the Stanley Cup seemed to be their destiny.
This feels like a similar kind of gut punch. It’s understandable to be angry as well as disappointed. Sure, teams can run hot or cold for a few games and that is what has happened this week, costing the Rays dearly. But we trusted this team’s talent and smarts. And it will be irritating, to say the least, to see all the Rays critics come out of hiding to say “I told you so!” as though their criticism of Rays baseball were truly vindicated based on a few unlucky bounces that resulted in two close losses.
I hope you all can put this in perspective — if not tonight, then tomorrow - and appreciate six months of good baseball that ended too soon.
Recommendations for appropriate comfort food/adult beverage in the chat please. I started with ice cream and ended with some pretty good limoncello my husband made with last year’s backyard lemon crop.