From Worst to Best? The Rays May Know the Way

Manager Joe Maddon has his Rays one step closer to the World Series, where they would enjoy home-field advantage.
Manager Joe Maddon has his Rays one step closer to the World Series, where they would enjoy home-field advantage. (By M. Spencer Green/pool -- Getty Images)
By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The last week of September in Baltimore, Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon leaned on the batting cage in Camden Yards and spun a fantasy. His Rays, the absolutely worst team in baseball in '07, would ignore the impulse to relax after making the playoffs for the first time in their history just two days before and, instead, "keep the pedal down" to finish ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East.

"We don't even want to give up on catching the Angels for the best record in the league," Maddon said.

"Why?" I asked. Didn't his players, after nine last-place finishes and one next-to-last in their 10-season existence, deserve rest after such overachieving brilliance?

"We want to play at the Trop," said Maddon of dingy, doomed, deafening Tropicana Field, where the Rays built the best home record (57-24) since the Yankees of '98. They were even better -- 21-2 -- when they had crowds of more than 30,000. "We want home field all the way through."

"Oh, all the way through the World Series?" I asked.

Maddon just grinned. You don't talk about such things. But now it's one step closer. The Rays clinched the AL East with a day of rest to spare and piled up 97 wins. That gave them the home-field edge against the White Sox, whom they went on to beat twice at the Trop and eliminate in four games.

Meanwhile, the Rays got their second wish, too. "Let the Red Sox beat the Angels for us," one Rays coach said. Now, that's happened, too. The Rays know the Red Sox inside out, respect them, but don't fear them after winning their season series 10-8, including an 8-0 record at the Trop with crowds of more than 30,000.

"We played them back-to-back series [in September] with the division title at stake. We lost the first game both times, but won both series," said right-hander James Shields, who is scheduled to start Game 1 of the ALCS. "We've played big games in Fenway and handled it."

Finally, if the Rays should reach the Series, they have home field there as well, thanks to the AL's victory in the All-Star Game. How do the teams in the NLCS play on the road? The Phils (44-37) were solid this season but the Dodgers (36-45) were lousy. So if you're rabid about the Rays, root for L.A.

No sane person would pick the Rays to win the Series. No team with the game's worst record has done it the following season. The closest were the '91 Twins, who were last in their division in '90 but, with 74 wins, were far from the game's worst team. The next season, the Twins won the Series. How? By going 5-1 at home, including all four Series wins in their dingy, domed, deafening Hump.

All season, baseball has waited for the Cubs, petted the Cubs and gotten ready to celebrate their first World Series win in 100 years. Oh, the Cubs, Cubs, Cubs. Now, their sweep by the Dodgers has a different twist. Just as the Rays now don't have to play the 100-win Angels, they won't meet the 97-win Cubs, either. The sport's two best regular season teams have disappeared from their path.

So forget the Cubs and the dead-dynasty Yankees. Rejoice that the sport's top three teams in payroll, including the Tigers and Mets, didn't even make the playoffs. In the division series, the Nos. 5-6-7 teams in payroll were eliminated, too. The result: The ludicrously low-budget Rays, next-to-last in salary, are in the final four with the Phils (13th) and the young Dodgers (eighth), who may be almost as stage-struck if they make the Series as Tampa Bay.

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