A Heck of a Story

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By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

BALTIMORE

Now that the Devil is in their past and heavenly October baseball is in their future, the Rays have a problem.

"We don't have anyone to throw out the ball for our first playoff game," Tampa Bay President Matt Silverman said. "MLB asked us who it'd be. We realized nobody in the history of the franchise had done anything to be worthy of the honor."

Nobody's even close. Not after Tampa Bay finished last in the American League East in nine of its previous 10 seasons. Not after playing in its Tropicana Field dungeon, a domed park that looks like a garbage can with its lid on crooked. Not after exorcising the "Devil" from its name this season and, apparently, erasing all of its past.

Central Command has a base in Tampa, so the Rays dream of fetching Gen. David Petraeus to throw out the first pitch. If not, as God is my witness, their second choice is Dick Vitale. That is their celebrity list. Who knew the Rays had a fan?

Until now, that is. Suddenly, we're all Ray-ving mad.

"I thought I'd seen everything in baseball. But this has been something to watch," coach Don Zimmer said. "Everybody in America picked us last. But the little Rays are ahead of the Red Sox and the Yankees. It's crazy."

The Rays aren't playing it cool. Instead, they're keeping the heat on and dreaming big -- very big. Instead of coasting into the playoffs after clinching a spot last Saturday, Tampa Bay is at Camden Yards with the pedal to the floor, trying to pile up wins. The Rays are sporting mohawks for inspiration, bursting into cheers when the Red Sox lose and watching their magic number -- two after Tuesday's doubleheader sweep -- fall as they approach an insanely unlikely division title.

Why work so hard to beat the Red Sox? Rest up, right?

Not these Rays, only the second team to reach the postseason after finishing with the game's worst record the previous year. Many fans think of them as the ultimate miracle team, full of kids and unknowns, a club without a 15-game winner, a .300 hitter or even a proven healthy closer.

"Our whole year has been magic," said right-hander James Shields (14-8, 3.57), who leads the team in victories. "Even in August, people were still doubting us. Then we swept the Angels at home and took a series from the White Sox in Chicago. This month, we took two series from Boston -- up there and back home.

"We're here to stay."


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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