Actually, scrub that and start again. Today is the Rays’ day.
No matter which way you look at it, today is all about the Rays. The story is well known by now, but it still trumps all the others, at least in my (biased!) view. No offence to the other playoff contenders, who have all earned the right to take their shot at the ultimate goal, but the Rays are the story. Manny reinvigorating the Dodgers? Meh. Phillies’ first playoff win in 15 years? Who cares. Brewers’s first playoff appearance in 26 years? Nice, but still. Both Chicago teams in the post-season since, well since before Wrigley (and thats saying something!). Good, but not all that. The Angels and the Red Sox? Pfft, seen it all before.
But the Rays?
10 years of misery, and a break-out like never before. 9 last place finishes and one fourth place. A best of 70 wins, and an average of 97 losses. No fans, no wins, no hope. Right?
The past few years, I’ve watched a couple of hundred or so Rays games on TV (well, the internet). And I’ve been to one Rays game live (a 4-3 defeat to Seattle at Safeco back in 2003, in case you haven’t read my profile!). I’ve seen a good deal of pretty bad baseball. Sure, I’ve seen some excitement, some young talent and a few big wins. But mostly I’ve seen losing. Lots of losing. Lots and lots and lots of losing. With no end in sight.
At least I have the opportunity to turn my computer off and forget about things. If I don’t want to know whats happening in the world of baseball, I simply don’t go to my bookmarked baseball websites for a while, and I’m completely in the dark.
But the fans in Tampa and St Pete? They’ve had 10 years of losing. And 10 years of everybody, every newspaper, every magazine, every TV report reminding them of the losing. It doesn’t worry me that attendances at the Trop are so low, it amazes me that they’re still so high. I’ve sat through plenty of bad football (soccer) in my time, and I know that watching losing is not fun. So for the season-ticket holders who have sat through everything thats gone on at the Trop over the Ray’s first decade have nothing but my respect.
And now they have their reward. For their patience, their belief and their support. As excited as I am about today, I can only imagine what it is like for the good people of Tampa and St Pete. This is their day. They’ve earned it.
I haven’t written anything since Monday, and for once its not because I’ve been too busy. Its because I literally don’t know where to start. This week I must have read over 100 articles on the Rays combined between the St Pete Times, the Rays’ site and ESPN. Not to mention the random ones that crop up in the various other baseball related sites I visit. This is how big this week is – the Rays have even had a mention on the BBC website. Wow.
And now, with 6 hours to go until James Shields makes a little bit of Rays’ history, I still don’t know where to start. The rotation is set. The lineup is set. The roster is (more-or-less) set. The White Sox are in town. Playoff baseball is about to hit St Pete.
It’s a strange feeling that I have right now. I mean, excitement and anticipation are the overriding things, but thats not all there is to it. There’s the hope – we could go all the way. There’s the fear – what if we fade without a trace. And there’s the confusion – what should I be expecting? Should I be reckoning on a month’s worth of games, or will it be all over this weekend. I mean, I want us to win it all, I don’t think there’s any reason that we can’t win it all – but at the same time I don’t want to be disappointed if we fall at the first hurdle. This is a young team, who have already outperformed all expectations. There’s no reason they can’t continue to do that. But if they don’t, then I don’t want to criticise, I want to celebrate them getting even this far. Its not an easy balance to maintain.
So I’ve decided. When its all over, I’m going to look back on the season as one of triumph and success. But for now I’m treating it the only way that a playoff team’s fan (and isn’t that an unusually feeling) can. The only outcome is a World Series win. That’s what I’m gunning for, because that’s what the Rays are gunning for. We’re in it to win it.
And the quest starts with the ball in the hands of James Shields. Of the guys on the Rays rotation, he probably has about the fourth-best pure stuff. But he is the ace. He has earned that mantle. As much as I love Kaz, and as good as Garza is going to be, Shields is the right person to start this all off. Scotty K will get game 2, Matt Garza game 3, and, if we get that far, Andy Sonnanstine will start in game 4. While the first three were no-brainers for Joe Maddon, the last choice was anything but. Both Sonny and Edwin Jackson have been inconsistant at times this year, but for the most part excellent. Ultimately, I think Sonny is the right choice – but that doesn’t make it any easier on E-Jax, especially because he won’t be in the ‘pen either. Missing out on the roster altogether after the huge contrubution he has given this year is a tough pill to swallow. But unfortunately Joe’s decided to go with a 6-man bullpen, and Edwin is just a little too inconsistant in relief to be relied on. I feel bad for E-Jax, gutted even, but you never know – fate is a strange thing and he may yet have a role to play for the Rays this year.
Also missing out on a job in the ‘pen are (and as I write this is still unconfirmed) Jason Hammel and Troy Percival. Perhaps neither decision is a surprise, but both are tough ones. Hammel could not make a claim to be the most talented pitcher the Rays have. But he has come up big on more than one occasion this year, while playing the crucial mop-up role out of the ‘pen. And then there’s Perci. I don’t have anything that I can really add to the debate on Troy, other than to say that leaving him off (if indeed it is the case) must be about the most difficult decision that Joe Maddon has had to make all year. Perci was awesome in the first half. He was injured and ineffective in the second half. He’s looked back to strength his last couple of appearances. But to back him would be, especially in a 6-man ‘pen, a huge risk. For the first round at least maybe it was just too big a risk for Joe. Perci is the ultimate pro – he’ll be disappointed, maybe even angry, but I’m sure that it’ll make him work even harder, just in case he is needed later on.
The hitters missing out on the post-season are less of a surprise. Jonny Gomes, Justin Ruggiano, John Jaso, Dan Johnson. All had a part to play in us getting here, but none can have been expecting to make the final cut. Guys, thanks for your effort, and stay sharp just in case.
The biggest news among the hitters is, of course, the news on our starting leftfielder for game one. Almost defying the odds, it will be Carl Crawford. I cannot begin to tell you how happy that makes me. Not just because, even having a down year, CC is one of the best outfielders in baseball, but because if anybody deserves to be on the field for the Rays’ first ever playoff game, it is him. He’s been here all through the bad times, and now, just as much as the fans do, he deserves a share of the good. Plus I’m sure that there isn’t a manager in baseball who would rather face a lineup with CC in it that one without.
The starting lineup today will be, for almost the first time I can remember, at full strength. Aki (2B) leading off, followed by BJ Upton (CF), Pena (1B), Longoria (3B), CC (LF), Cliff Floyd (DH), Dioner Navarro (C), Gabe Gross (RF) and Jason Bartlett (SS). Its fair to say that I’m pretty confident in that bunch of players right there.
The players on the roster who I haven’t mentioned are: Ben Zobrist, Willy Aybar, Eric Hinske, Rocco Baldelli, Fernando Perez and Michel Hernandez (hitters); and Chad Bradford, Dan Wheeler, JP Howell, Grant Balfour, Trever Miller and David Price (pitchers). Yep, David Price. He has come. What role will he play in the post-season? Possibly a big one. I wouldn’t have a problem giving him the ball in whatever situation, and I don’t think Maddon will either. And in my opinion (one that I am sure is shared with everyone who has watched the Rays in September) keeping Perez on the roster could prove a master-stroke. His speed on the basepaths and in the field is scary, but he’s shown a very welcome knack of timely hitting as well. Keep an eye on him.
Right, well thats a long and rambling post even by my standards, but like I said, I’m excited. So I think I can be excused.
I’m sure I will have more to say tomorrow morning, either applauding victory, or staying positive in defeat. In the meantime – James Shields, 2.30pm ET. Watch it happen. 9=8. And, I hope, 9=4.