ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Kevin Kiermaier whipped his batting helmet with his right hand in frustration. Catcher Josh Phegley had just thrown him out at first base to complete a game-ending swinging strikeout, a nondescript play that clinched the Chicago White Sox’s 4-3 victory Friday and placed the Tampa Bay Rays in an uncommon position.
With the loss, the Rays were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention with eight games left, a rare sensation for a franchise that had risen among the majors’ most consistent since 2008. The past six seasons have included a World Series berth and three American League Division Series appearances. Since the 2007 season’s end, they’ve played in just 13 games in which they already had been eliminated from the playoff picture.
Their self-created reputation: Participating in games that don’t shape their playoff chances has become rare.
"Really?" Rays manager Joe Maddon said, after hearing the news while lounging in the chair behind the desk in his office. "Well, get the RV gassed up.
"It’s just been a very difficult year from that perspective. You take away that awful stretch with which we had (a 1-14 record from May 26 to June 10), we’ve played pretty good since the break."
There will be time in the coming weeks to revisit where the Rays’ season turned sour. Their record stands at 74-80, far from where they envisioned themselves at this point when spring dreams were formed. There are many reasons why they’re in this position: Inconsistent pitching, an anemic offense, that painful slide that remains on the forefront of Maddon’s mind.
But for now, in the hours after the crowd at Tropicana Field filed away with Tampa Bay’s playoff chances reaching "zero," it’s appropriate to consider how the Rays have made early elimination almost an extinct idea in recent years to those who have become familiar with them. Their postseason visions were dashed with 11 games left in 2009 and two remaining in 2012. But beyond those examples, they’ve entertained with late-season rallies and final-hour dramatics, memories created in Game No. 162 and others in a necessary Game No. 163.
"That sucks," right-hander Jeremy Hellickson said after hearing the news. "We really haven’t played too many games where we’ve been out of playoff contention since I’ve been here. It’s definitely no fun to come to the park and play when you know that you’re not going to be playing in October."
Thing is, not playing in October has felt like the reality for a while. The math became official late Friday with Kiermaier walking back to his dugout, his helmet tucked against his right hip. But playoff talk hasn’t been a topic of conversation for a while.
Yes, Maddon’s narrative had shifted in recent weeks as the Kansas City Royals, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners carried on with their respective hunts for October. Instead, he preached trying to become the first team to finish with a winning record after falling 18 games below .500 earlier in the year. The change in his tone was obvious.
"It’s very strange. It’s no fun," Maddon said. "Believe me, man. If anything, to not be involved in the postseason, it’s just no fun. We expect to be there on an annual basis, regardless of whatever anybody wants to talk about — financial restrictions, whatever. To me, that’s never mattered, and it’s never going to matter."
Late Friday, the Rays clubhouse was mostly quiet, aside from the familiar noises of a day on the field done. Showers ran. Players walked in flip-flops and packed for the night. The season’s end is near, but there remain games to play with no deeper meaning. This feels so different than most Septembers from the Rays’ recent past.
"We know where we stand," infielder Logan Forsythe said, "and we’re working toward what we need to work on this offseason."