The Rays and Red Sox have played a lot of games since 1998. The Red Sox have won most of them. There’s been some important ones (mostly for the Sox). There’s been some controversial ones. And there’s been some fighting ones.
But there has never been one as big as tonight’s game.
8.37 EST, Tropicana Field, St Petersburg. The Rays will start playing for a place in the World Series.
It is almost unbelieveable…
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.
How else could the season end?
Its like the team squeezed down the essence of the year and filled it all into game 162, just to show the world, if they didn’t know already, what these Rays are all about.
A come-from-behind, battling, never-give-up, blown save, extra innings, come-back-again, amazing defense, unlikely hero win. A story that has almost become the norm rather than the exception this season. Indeed, I can barely remember a single win out of the 97 (yes, ninety-seven) this year that hasn’t either been come-from-behind, battling, or involved an unlikely hero. Its just the way things happen these days when you’re watching the Rays.
Consider that the Rays, in a final warm-up before the playoffs (how great does that sound?!) used 8 pitchers and 14 position players…
Or perhaps even the magic-eAst number.
One win in Detroit (or a Red Sox loss) will do it. One single game between the Rays and the AL East crown. If that doesn’t get you a little bit excited, well, I don’t know what does.
A four game sweep of the Orioles, including the franchise’s first ever sweep of a doubleheader (in fourteen attempts), means that with four games to go the Rays have a three game lead over Boston and the top is within touching distance. Today we have a tough 1.05 ET start time against the Tigers, and, if we can’t pull out the win there then we have another shot at claiming the top spot tonight, if the Indians can beat Boston at Fenway.
But I’m pretty sure I know how the team would prefer to win it. For themselves, on the field in Detroit. With all their heroics so far this year, it would be the most fitting way…
“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.
First the good.
Major league debut, your team’s last ever game at Yankee Stadium, in the middle of a pennant race. Nervous?
Price certainly didn’t look it as he came out of the ‘pen to start the third inning against the Yankees. He retired the first big league hitter he saw, Xavier Nady, with his first pitch, and retired the next five straight…
You know the story. A nightmare start to the roadtrip. More injuries. A struggling offense.
And then the Rays effect takes over.
Due to one thing and another, I’ve just finished watching Wednesday night’s game three of the Boston series. I watched games one and two on Wednesday and Thursday, hence the longer than usual net lag delay. But, in the end, it was worth the wait.
After arriving in Boston, things started with a scare as reliever Juan Salas had an epileptic seizure. He’s fine, and back with the team, but its harldly a calming way to start a crucial series. Then the game came, Edwin Jackson gave up three runs in the first inning, and things looked grim…