The Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles each clinched a postseason berth with the Rangers' Sunday loss to the Guardians. Neither the Rays nor Orioles are content with "merely" securing a wild-card berth, however, as the American League East title still hangs in the balance. Speaking of which, the Orioles struck a blow on Sunday with a back-and-forth victory at Camden Yards by a score of 5-4 in 11 innings.
The win means the Orioles -- who are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2016 -- split the crucial four-game series and hold a two-game lead atop the AL East standings. The Orioles also own the head-to-head tiebreaker by winning the season series, and essentially have a three-game lead in the division.
Sunday's game was a pitcher's duel for much of the afternoon, as the score was tied 1-1 going into the eighth. With one out in the top half of the frame, however, Tristan Gray hit the first home run of his major-league career. The next man up for Tampa Bay, Christian Bethancourt, made it 3-1 Rays with a home run of his own.
Baltimore's All-Star catcher Adley Rutschman cut the margin to one run with a homer in the bottom of the eighth. In the ninth, the O's were able to force extras with a pair of two-out hits.
The Rays plated the automatic runner in the top of the 10th, and with two outs in the bottom half the O's were once again on the verge of defeat. Also once again, Rutschman came through with the clutch hit:
In the 11th, the Orioles kept the Rays off the board in the top of the frame, thanks in part to a nifty play at third base by Gunnar Henderson. The O's won it in the bottom of the 11th on a Cedric Mullins sac fly that scored Rutschman.
The Rays and O's are the first American League teams to clinch a postseason berth and the third and fourth teams overall, Atlanta Braves and . This is Tampa's fifth consecutive postseason berth and the ninth in franchise history. The Rays lost the World Series in 2008 and 2020. They have never made it out of the Division Series otherwise.
. The Rays are 80-57 since then, which is a 95-win pace in a 162-game schedule, and they are 24-9 in their last 33 games. The Rays were in first place from Opening Day through July 18, and as recently as Sept. 9, they were four games back of the O's in the division. They made up a lot of ground in a short period of time.
As for the Orioles, their playoff drought since 2016 had been. Following that last postseason appearance, the club undertook a tear-down that took them to frankly humiliating depths, much of it under general manager Mike Elias. Elias was hired following the Orioles' 115-loss season in 2018.
Over the next three seasons, a stretch that includes the abbreviated 2020 campaign, the O's went 131-253 (.341 winning percentage) and for a four-year stretch picked no lower than fifth overall in the draft. That succession of high picks and additional intakes of young talent yielded a powerhouse farm system. That young talent base -- led by Rutschman and Rookie of the Year frontrunner Gunnar Henderson -- has arrived in the majors and forms the foundation of what looks like a lasting window of contention in Baltimore despite ownership's very limited willingness to invest in roster improvements.
The stakes remain high in the AL East race. The winner of the division will very likely claim the top-overall seed in the AL side of the bracket and thus a Wild Card Series bye and home-field advantage through at least the Championship Series. The runner-up, meantime, must play in the best-of-three Wild Card Series that functions as the opening round of the MLB playoffs.