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Rays Are Thinking Deep Thoughts
Tampa Bay Is Closing In on First World Series by Hammering Boston to Take 3-1 Lead in the ALCS: Rays 13, Red Sox 4

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

BOSTON Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

-- For a full decade, Fenway Park stood as an ancient, gilded monument to everything the Tampa Bay Rays could never possess and never be. The history, the charm, the celebrity fans, the championship pennants, the packed stands, the money, the talent, the adoration and fame that comes from being a beloved part of a community's cultural fabric. Then came 18 innings of baseball here this week, and the sense that the dynamic has been altered permanently.

Now, you couldn't pay the Rays enough money to change places with the Boston Red Sox. As the upstart visitors from the Sunshine State administered a savage beating to the hometown nine for a second straight night, in a 13-4 victory in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, Fenway Park just looked old, run-down and charmless, in need of a thorough paint job at best and a wrecking ball at worst. Much like the Red Sox themselves.

Game 4 was a game for about three batters, until Carlos Peña hit the first of the Rays' three towering home runs over the Green Monster in left field. After that, it was a rout, a mismatch and a rhetorical question: Just how much better are the Rays, top to bottom, at this moment than their more storied opponents?

The answer is only hinted at by Tuesday night's margin of victory, or by the score in the best-of-seven series, which the Rays now lead, three games to one. Instead, it is best measured by relating it to recent history.

The Red Sox have been to the playoffs five times this decade, playing 51 games total, and had never been beaten in two straight games at Fenway Park until now. But these Rays, young and fearless and brazen, are unlike anything the Red Sox have seen. They didn't merely win back-to-back games on Monday and Tuesday -- in a park where they went 23-61 between 1998 and 2007 -- they smothered the Red Sox by a combined score of 22-5.

After an off-day, the series resumes here Thursday night -- with Boston's hopes residing in right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, against either Scott Kazmir or James Shields for the Rays -- and if the Rays win, they would be the champions of the AL and would host Game 1 of the World Series a week from Wednesday.

"It's right there for us," left fielder Carl Crawford said. "It's definitely in a category where you can't believe what's going on."

The Red Sox can lean on the memories of 2004, when they mounted a historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit against the New York Yankees in the ALCS, or 2007, when they came back from 3-1 down to beat the Cleveland Indians. But Pedro Martínez is long gone, Curt Schilling is out with an injury and Josh Beckett -- who would start Game 6 for them, if they survive that long -- is a shell of himself.

"We've gotta find a way to win -- otherwise our season is over," Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "You can't be loose. Hit the panic button."

One night after pounding hard-throwing lefty Jon Lester with a barrage of homers over the Green Monster, the Rays did the same thing to Lester's polar opposite, the veteran knuckleball specialist Tim Wakefield, who was battered for three more homers in an unsightly 2 2/3 -inning performance. These days, the Rays crush any and all pitchers, including the ones who followed Wakefield to the mound.

Crawford wound up with five hits, tying a postseason record. Willy Aybar drove in five runs, including a two-run homer off Wakefield that sailed clear out of the park. Peña scored three times. The Rays batted around in the sixth.

"Everybody's raking in [the Rays'] lineup," Red Sox slugger David Ortiz said. "Everybody's pretty much locked in. I've been to a lot of playoffs, and you don't see that too often. You might see three or four guys hit, but everybody? It's crazy.

The dominance was complete and indisputable. The Rays pitched better than the Red Sox, behind 7 1/3 sterling innings from right-hander Andy Sonnanstine, whose fastballs darted and sunk away from Boston bats. They hit better. And they played exceptional defense, particularly speedy center fielder B.J. Upton, who ran down four long drives to the warning track as if they were routine flies.

"This is what we are," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "We put pressure on the pitcher, and the pitching and defense is always there. [But] the offensive onslaught the last couple of games is a little unbelievable."

A flat, lifeless knuckleball ought to carry a sign that says "Crush Me," and the Rays were like that bully kid who delights in taking such signs literally. The first blow was struck by Peña, who launched a drive into the seats atop the left field wall, a two-run homer. Two pitches later, on a chest-high knuckleball, Longoria hit one even deeper into those seats.

The game was only four batters old, and the Red Sox were in a 3-0 hole. Wakefield was reeling. Justin Masterson was warming up in the bullpen. The sound coming from the 38,133 huddled in Fenway's ancient stands sounded like a cross between a groan and a whisper.

"It's been a little different than usual these last couple of games -- hearing nothing out there," Longoria said. "It's been pretty silent in the late innings."

By the ninth inning, as the dregs of the Boston bullpen mopped up the mess, Fenway's stands were half-empty and the Red Sox, suddenly looking as old and worn as their home park, seemed half-dead. The only signs of energy were in the visitors' dugout, which crackled with it, electric and alive.

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