He’s going to have to wait a little bit longer now.
At age 38, pitching for his 10th team in 18 seasons, right-hander Jamey Wright is yearning to taste the postseason for the first time and his Tampa Bay Rays entered Friday’s action with a chance to qualify for a wild-card berth, needing a win over the Toronto Blue Jays and a loss by the Texas Rangers.
Instead, coming off a pivotal seven-game win streak, the normally sure-handed Rays committed a season-high three errors in the field and managed only five hits against R.A. Dickey in 7-1/3 innings, losing 6-3 inside the closed-roof Rogers Centre.
“They had their way with us,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You can’t let that bother you. You cannot change anything. We’re playing great right now, just a bad night.”
The defeat set up the possibility of a three-team tie for the two AL wild-card playoff positions. After Friday's contests, the Rays and Cleveland Indians are tied for the top spot, with Texas sitting one game behind. The Indians beat the Twins, 12-6, and the Rangers won, 5-3, over the Angels.
The Rays face J.A. Happ on Saturday. If they still need a win on Sunday, pitching for the Jays will be Todd Redmond, a Rays fan growing up in St. Petersburg. Were all three teams to be tied following Sunday’s action, a pair of tie-breakers would be played. The Rays would go to Cleveland on Monday, with the winner advancing to the Division Series. The loser of that game would play Texas on Tuesday for the other spot.
“If we make it, it’ll be that much sweeter after all these years,” said Wright, who was traded by Milwaukee to St. Louis for the final month of the 2002 season but left off the playoff roster.
Wright toils for a team that understands how to use pitchers of his ilk - both to the advantage of its payroll and on-field performance. From the outset, he discovered a clubhouse culture unlike no other, and that’s saying something for someone who’s played for the Rockies, Brewers, Cardinals, Royals, Giants, Rangers, Indians, Mariners and Dodgers.
“It’s a great group of guys - they have fun, play hard, play loose, but you know, they walk into this clubhouse and expect to win,” he said. “They don’t wake up hoping they’ll get a win, they come in expecting to get a win. It’s kind of the Ray Way.”
Maddon sets the tone. Said Wright: “He commands a relaxed attitude.”
Amidst the tension of a stretch run, the Rays had the annual rookie dress-up night this week. After the loss on Friday, he noted: “One of the rough parts about being in Canada is, I can’t get Netflix [on his U.S. account] back at the hotel. And with that, I can’t really watch The Office. Michael Scott has really got me through these last two weeks.”
The Rays endured a 4-13 stretch before rebounding over these last few weeks with 12 wins in 15 games entering Friday. They split a four-game series with Texas and swept Baltimore (four games) and the Yankees (three). They’d won eight straight against the AL East until the defeat.
Solo homers by Ben Zobrist and Delmon Young (his 100th, career) gave Tampa Bay a 2-0 lead. Ruben Sierra contributed a pair of RBI singles against Jeremy Hellickson (12-10) in consecutive innings, and two more runs scored in Toronto's four-run fourth as Ryan Goins's single skipped through centre fielder Sam Fuld. Goins was thrown out at the plate, on the same play.
Dickey (14-13), making his last start of the season, left in the eighth with the bases loaded for reliever Sergio Santos who induced a first-pitch double-play grounder from James Loney to preserve a four-run margin. Santos allowed a run in the ninth while recording his first save of the season.
“All year we’ve been on the verge,” Maddon said, before the game. “It’s that mental edge that you acquire that goes through the entire group. When you show up, you’re confident you’re going to win that night. We’ve been teetering on that moment all year and finally we may have had a breakthrough.”
With the exception of third baseman Evan Longoria who signed a nine-figure deal last offseason, the Rays have traded away high-salaried players to suppress payroll, leaning on their player development system for talent and supplementing with acquisitions that both fit their system and the low payroll. Maddon’s used the right-handed Wright against lefties to exploit his split fastball, for instance. His salary this year is $900,000 (all currency in U.S.). Loney made $6.4-million with the Dodgers and Red Sox last season; he signed with Tampa Bay for $2-million as a little-wanted free agent, and is hitting.301 average with 74 RBIs.
Tampa Bay’s opening day payroll, just under $60-million, ranked 28th among the 30 major league teams, while Tropicana Field attendance of 1.51 million came in last overall. If the Rays make the playoffs, they’ll have drawn the lowest season turnout for a playoff team since the Marlins attracted 1.3 million 10 years ago. Owner Stuart Sternberg told the Tampa Bay Times that he was a “little shocked” by the attendance figure, explaining that the team determined its budget with an ‘extraordinarily’ conservative estimate of gate receipts, and yet the number still came in “below our expectations.”
Sternberg indicated that the low revenues could affect payroll next year, though MLB teams will receive an approximate $27-million boost from a new national television contract with three U.S. networks. As deadspin.com pointed out, Sternberg has delivered a similar message for the last several seasons around the same time. And still, the Rays remain competitive.
They made the playoffs in three of the past five years, once advancing to the World Series. And unless something more extraordinary than the low attendance occurs this weekend, Wright will finally know that postseason feeling.