Back in March, when this season began, the headline above was just about the last thing I expected to see come October. But it happened. The 100–1 longshot came in, and the Tampa Bay Rays will be representing the American League in the 2008 World Series while the Red Sox, Angels and Yankees stay home. In the words of Yogi Berra, “Whodathunkit?”
The Rays won a tremendous AL Championship Series Sunday night, a series with ebbs and flows and ups and downs to rival any series I have ever seen, and as a Red Sox fan I have seen plenty. The way the series turned out may be disappointing, but as a fan of the game I cannot help but be impressed by this matchup and this Tampa team.
After Game 1, there was talk of a Red Sox sweep. The Sox, fresh off a victory over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, got a dominant pitching performance by Daisuke Matsuzaka in Tampa and had their aces, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, scheduled to pitch the next two games. Beckett was not the pitcher we had come to expect in the postseason, however, and the Sox lost a heartbreaking Game 2 in extra innings despite scoring eight runs.
The Rays then proceeded to crush the Red Sox in Games 3 and 4, outscoring them 22–4 and making the Boston team look old and tired. Mike Lowell was out, Beckett was way off his game and probably hurt, David Ortiz looked nothing like the hitter Sox fans are accustomed to seeing in October, Jason Varitek and Jacoby Ellsbury were o’fer the series, a combined 0–24, and the club looked done.
When the Rays took a seven run lead into the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 5, the coronation was all but complete. The Tampa Bay AL Championship T-shirts were printed, champagne was on ice in the visitors’ locker room at Fenway, and Fox had the World Series schedule, with Game 1 in Tampa, on its web site. But baseball is a funny game, and the Red Sox have made a habit of digging themselves out of graves in recent years. (An aside here: You have no idea how weird it feels to longtime Red Sox fan to type that.) NYYFans.com’s Sir Fozzie really said it best:
“Seriously, after the ‘snap’ of the Yankees Game 7 win in 2003, it almost seems like the Sox have turned into Jason from Friday the 13th. You knock them down. Set them on fire. Run them over. Say, ‘There’s no way that they survived that.’
“They then get up and rip your $@%&)@ heart out.”
And the Red Sox did just that. They scored eight runs after two were out in the seventh inning to complete an improbable comeback victory; Fangraphs had Tampa’s win expectancy at 99.4 percent in the seventh.
After this near-impossible comeback, many thought the Rays would fold. The Red Sox had the more veteran team, and they were playoff tested, while the Rays were young and inexperienced. When the Boston team won Game 6 behind Beckett and a great job by a tired bullpen, most of the baseball world wrote off the Rays.
If you watched closely, however, you saw that the young team did not collapse in Game 6. The Rays lost, but they played well. Still, coming into Game 7, everything seemed to be in the Red Sox’ favor. They had the history of coming back from seemingly insurmountable deficits, they were the defending World Champions, they had Jon Lester, the ultimate comeback player after defeating non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the team’s best pitcher, on the mound.
The Rays, on the other hand, were surely shell-shocked from the Game 5 devastation and would implode on the field. They were pitching Matt Garza, a talented player with a reputation for unraveling when things went poorly. When Dustin Pedroia hit Garza’s sixth pitch of the night into the left field stands, baseball writers all over the country were preparing their “greatest comeback team of all time” stories. But these Rays are a resilient bunch, and they were not going to go easily. Garza, the deserving ALCS MVP award winner, dispelled those stories about his makeup and, in the biggest game of his career, outpitched Lester, throwing seven innings of two-hit baseball while striking out nine.
The Tampa Bay team got clutch hits on tough pitches from Evan Longoria and Rocco Baldelli, then unlikely series hitting star Willy Aybar (.421 in the series with two home runs and six runs batted in) hit a long homer on the seventh pitch of his at-bat in the seventh inning. That was more than enough for Garza and the Rays pen. The Tampa Bay Rays beat the Boston Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS and are going to the World Series.
This is no fluke. The Rays deserve to represent the American League in the World Series. They finished first in the toughest division on baseball, the American League East, largely because they won the season series against the defending World Champion Boston Red Sox. They then beat the Red Sox in the playoffs, and there is no doubt the better team won.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the incredible series B.J. Upton just had. He reached base 13 times in seven games, with four home runs, 11 runs batted in, and eight runs scored. Longoria also hit four home runs and drove in eight. Carlos Pena hit three home runs, Carl Crawford batted .345, and the aforementioned Aybar hit .421 with six runs batted in just 19 at-bats. The best news for Rays fans may be that only one player, Pena, among their regular positional players and their five starting pitchers, has reached his 30 birthday, and he just did so in May. This should be a very good team going forward.
The essence of baseball is the unexpected, and when a longshot like the Rays makes it to the World Series it should be celebrated. As a Red Sox fan I am certainly disappointed my team will not be playing any more this season—winters are long here in New England—but I also could not be happier for baseball and for the Tampa Bay Rays. What a great story this team has been. I tip my hat to the Rays and wish them well in the World Series.