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.
What a week.
I literally don’t know where to start.
I mean, if something could happen it has happened. Comebacks, injuries, improbable heroes, trades, demotions – you name it and the Rays have experienced it since I last wrote a proper entry a week ago. Unbelieveable.
And, on top of it all, we’ve somehow managed to increase our lead at the top of the AL East to 4 1/2 games over the Red Sox and 8 1/2 on the Yankees. And we did that by recording our franchise-record 71st win of the season. But more on that in a bit. Probably…
There are certainly easier ways to a sweep.
Not letting a (admittedly impressive) rookie one-hit you into the seventh inning for one. Not having your closer blow a save with his first pitch, and then give up the go-ahead run to the first batter in extra-innings for another. And not having your shortstop get hurt in trying to put together a second comeback after the first two have occurred.
But who wants the easy way, right?
2-0 down, and nothing to show apart from an Evan Longoria infield hit is where the Rays found themselves at the seventh-inning stretch yesterday…
Hmmm, its almost a whole week since my last post, and for once its not because I’ve been terribly busy. Rather, its because of the particularly unispiring run of performances that have been put in. A four-game series split on the road in Kansas City, and the first two in Toronto also shared.
Its all been the same old story to be honest. Solid pitching, dazzling defense, and no hitting worth speaking off. Actually, a couple of bits, such as a couple of homers from Carlos Pena, and a 2-triple game from Carl Crawford (who added another last night), were pleasant moments, but by and large its been a struggle. The highlight of the trip so far has without question been in the field – Jason Bartlett returned…
There’s no doubt about it, I’m afraid. The Rays are struggling right now. We are right in the middle of a serious mid-season malaise.
The main reason behind it is obvious for all to see. We can’t hit. Our bats are asleep. The biggest culprits (if thats the right word) are Carl Crawford, BJ Upton and Carlos Pena, but with the exception of perhaps Evan Longoria (who homered in three straight games over the weekend), no-one has exactly been shining recently.
So don’t think that the irony of optioning Ben Zobrist back to Durham has been lost…
You know something? You just can’t not watch this team. You can’t stop, you can’t look away, not even for one second.
Because every pitch, every swing of the bat, every bit of glovework could be the one. It could win the game. Even a game that looked out of reach. And maybe even a series against the World Champions.
At 3AM last night (UK time, obviously!), the Rays were 4-1 down. Kaz had lasted only 5 innings with an elevated pitch count, and through 6 innings the hitters had picked up only 3 hits between them. I had to be up for work at 8. I was only watching live at all because well, lets face it, Kaz v Dice-K, Rays going for the sweep, how can you not watch live? And as Jonny Gomes struck out, leaving a man aboard to end the 6th, going to bed looked a pretty good option.
However, before I get to my good decision, and those last 3 innings, lets have a quick recap of games 1 and 2…