“Its about 9 guys, playing hard for 9 innings, to take one of the 8 playoff spots.”
So said Joe Maddon of his t-shirt design, back in Spring Training. And we laughed. Sure, we admired his ambition and his coinfidence, but frankly I think we’d have been happy with a season in which we didn’t lose 90 games. A .500 season would have been awesome. And a winning season the stuff of dreams.
Joe Maddon is a smart man. He thinks before he speaks, and he doesn’t go in for hyperbole. But he knows baseball.
And I will never doubt him again.
‘Cos the Rays are going to the playoffs.
And the win that sealed it was a perfect example of the mantra that the Rays have lived by all season. It saw 5 pitchers limiting the Twins to two consolation runs late on. It saw 6 batters drive in runs. And, of course, it saw a myriad of sparkling defensive plays, from Evan Longoria, from Fernando Perez, from Rocco Baldelli, from Dioner Navarro and from Carlos Pena.
Before the game, the local chapter of the BBWAA announced their team award winners. Their selection of team MVP pretty much sums up the way the season has gone. It wasn’t Pena with his 31 homeruns and 98 RBI. It wasn’ Longoria with his 25 homers, 82 RBI and spectactular defense. It wasn’t Navarro with his team-best .292 average and immense play behind the plate. It wasn’t any of our starting pitchers, all with at least 11 wins.
No, it was a guy who has hit .280 with 1 homerun and 33 RBI. Jason Bartlett. A guy who, along with Matt Garza, we received in a trade last winter for Delmon Young. And you know what, without his defense, and without his spark, I don’t think we’d be in this position right now. And I guess that makes a pretty good definition for the Most Valuable Player.
The way this week started though, you wouldn’t have been betting on the celebrations that the Trop saw last night. Monday’s loss to Boston wasn’t just ugly, it had the potential to be mentally destroying. When your ace takes the mound, in a huge game, and gets tagged for 6 hits, 4 homeruns and 9 runs in just 3 innings, you’ve got a long way to bounce back. By the time the 13-5 defeat was done with, Scott Kazmir’s confidence was shattered, and the Rays were in a virtual tie for first place in the East for the first time since the All-Star break.
So how do you come back? You send your number 5 starter to battle with your rival’s ace. As it turns out, its a masterplan. For the second time in a week, Andy Sonnanstine went toe-to-toe with Josh Beckett, allowing just a single unearned run in 6 innings. Balfour, Howell and Wheeler did their thing, kept it shutdown, and let the walk-off happen like it has so many times already this year. Tuesday night it was the turn of Dioner Navarro, his walk-off single (it would have been a ground-rule double had he not been mobbed on the basepaths) the margin in a 2-1 win.
So, Wednesday, and a massive game. Heading out, the Rays would either be tied with the Sox, or have a 2-game lead. And, perhaps more importantly, it would decide the season series – a Rays win would seal the matchup 10-8, giving them the edge if the AL East were to go to a tiebreaker. And the Rays would have to deal with their nemesis, Tim Wakefield.
Unfortunately for the Sox, they had to deal with Joe Maddon. After the success of the non-switch hitting switch hitters against Mike Mussina last weekend, Joe had Willy Aybar and Fernando Perez repeat the act against Wakefield. They responded by both hitting homeruns off the knuckleballer – according to Elias, the first pair of switch hitters to both hit homeruns from the wrong side (ie righty v righty) in the same game since division play started in 1969. Gabe Gross went deep as well, and the Rays coasted to a 10-3 win. Yeah.
After those two feel-good wins, Thursday was another loss that threatened to be disheartening. We knocked the Twins starter out in the first, putting up a 5-spot, but couldn’t shake the pesky Minnesota hitters. Evan Longoria became just the second Ray (after Jonny Gomes) to hit three homeruns in a game, but it wasn’t enough as closer de jour Dan Wheeler had a rare meltdown, allowing four runs as the Twins fought back to a 11-8 win.
Still, if at first you don’t succeed, and all that. Friday night the Rays took until the second to knock the Twins starter out the game, but thanks to a great start from Edwin Jackson (7 IP, 7 hits, 5 Ks, 1 run), this time there were no late game fireworks. Evan Longoria added 3 RBI to his series output, while Carlos Pena had four of his own, three of which came on a history-making homerun – originally ruled a fan-interference double, it became the first ever call to be overturned by video replay. An 11-1 win, and a game away from history.
And, wouldn’t you just know it, that it was Scott Kazmir, after getting shellacked in his last start, who came up big yesterday. 6 shutout innings, 5 hits and 5 strikeouts, and the Rays’ winningest ever pitcher was rewarded with the W. The win that sends the Rays to the postseason for the first time ever.
Joe Maddon had it right all along.
Well, not quite. The nine innings and eight teams is right. But the number of players, well he was way off. This season has been the ultimate team effort. And its been even better to watch as a result of it. From the mohawk-fever thats sweeping the clubhouse, to the beards for Rocco earlier in the year, to the never-ending stream of shaving foam to the face victims, its been a joy. There was a great quote from Scott Kazmir in the St Pete Times yesterday – “We got Mohawks and everything. We might as well do dugout chants.” And you know what, he’s right. Rather than the highly-paid professional athletes that they are, the Rays have played more like a bunch of mates playing for some high school team, wanting to win not for themselves, but rather for their friends. Its a great attitude to have, and no small part of the Rays’ success this year.
And its architect? Joe Maddon of course.