The Rays spent much of the last two weeks celebrating.
They sprayed champagne in Toronto when they clinched their first playoff berth in six years, then again in Oakland when the won the AL wild-card game. After losing the first two games of the AL division series to Astros, they won Games 3 and 4 at home, reviving their hopes and potentially their fractured fanbase, by forcing a fifth and deciding game. They talked of how much they loved playing together and each other, and were determined to keep going.
But Thursday, it all came to a quiet end in a 6-1 loss to an Astros team that looked very much like the majors' best.
A terrible start by Tyler Glasnow put the Rays in a 4-0 hold in the first inning, Gerrit Cole shut them down and nearly out for the second time in the series and they added on with two homers off Emilio Pagan in the eighth.
Rather than go on to New York to face the Yankees in the AL Championship Series, they are headed home Friday morning, and when the disappointment fades they are likely to appreciate what they accomplished in what will go down as one of their best seasons.
They melded a young core, a few key veterans and some helpful in-season additions to win 99 games, with 96 in the regular season, one shy of the franchise record.
The Rays went into Thursday's game with something of an edge, feeling they'd been slighted by media and fans anticipating and expecting an Astros-Yankees heavyweight battle for the American League pennant, and how correspondingly that flipped the pressure on to an Astros team that won an MLB-most 107 games and is considered the favorite to win the World Series championship.
"For us to be here today, you know, it means the world. Nobody thought we were coming back to be Houston," shortstop Willy Adames said before the game. "I'd say that, yeah, everybody is counting us out already. They're making the schedule the Yankees and the Astros. So I would say the pressure is on them. Obviously because they went to Tropicana up 2-0. So like I said, nobody thought that we'd come back to Houston, and we're here. I'd say the pressure is on them, for sure."
All the confidence and al the momentum the Rays brought back to Houston from their thrilling Games 3 and 4 wins at home disappeared quickly on Thursday.
That's because starter Glasnow allowed a hit to the first Astros batter, George Springer, who singled. Then the second, Michael Brantley, who singled. Then the third, Jose Altuve, who singled in one run. And then the fourth, Alex Bregman, who doubled in two more.
And that was all in the first 10 pitches he threw.
After getting one out, Glasnow allowed a fifth hit, a single to Yuli Gurriel, that made it 4-0.
That he found something and got the Rays through the first and into the third wasn't of much consolation, as the damage was done.
Glasnow was making his sixth start since returning from a nearly four-month injured list stint due to a forearm strain, going 0-0, 1.46 in four September games, then pitching fairly well in the ALDS opener, allowing Houston two runs over 4 1/3 innings, striking out five.
Worse, the Rays couldn't do enough against Astros starter Gerrit Cole to make up for it.
The Rays got one back when Eric Sogard, inserted in the lineup in place of Brandon Lowe due to his contact-oriented approach, knocked the first pitch he saw over the rightfield fence.
But after that, the Rays pretty much got Coled for the second time this series.
In Game 2 on Saturday, Cole, who led the AL with a 2.50 ERA and the majors with 326 strikeouts, threw 7 2/3 shutout innings while striking 15 and walking just one.
Thursday, he worked eight dazzling and dominating innings, allowing only the one run and two hits while striking out 10.
Though the Astros had Cole on the mound and the roaring Minute Maid Park crowd behind them, the Rays felt pretty good about being able to handle the challenge given their path to get here.
Thursday's game was the fourth elimination game the Rays had played in a nine-game span, going back to similarly high staked winner-take-all AL wild card game on Oct. 2 in Oakland, then Games 3 and 4 of this series at the Trop after they lost the first after losing the first two in Houston.
And they seemed pretty certain that experience would serve them well in managing the nervousness and stress.
"I hope it helps a little bit," manager Kevin Cash said before the game. "We've done it in one environment on the road, this will be our second doing it on the road. hopefully the tension that you have, there was a lot of tension in the wild-card game, and when we came back for (Games) 3 and 4 getting out of the gate was crucial so hopefully they've kind of put that in their memory bank and it settles some of those anxieties."