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Rays Manage to Lose

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By Thomas Boswell
Friday, October 17, 2008

BOSTON

Somebody call Grady Little. For the worst managing job in American League Championship Series history, he's now off the hook. At Fenway Park on Thursday night, with his team ahead 7-0 in the seventh inning and with two outs, Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon managed his team out of a pennant that was as good as won.

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Luckily for the Rays and mercifully for Maddon, the Rays still lead this playoff, three games to two, after an 8-7 loss. In the bottom of the ninth, J.D. Drew singled off J.P. Howell, scoring Kevin Youkilis, who had reached second base after a two-out infield single and throwing error by third baseman Evan Longoria.

If necessary, the Rays have two more chances at home this weekend to reach the World Series one season after finishing with the worst record in all of baseball. Those with any sense of mercy will not root for the Red Sox. New Englanders, or multi-generational Bosox fans, are granted an exception.

"We just have to go back home and get it done," Maddon said. "Nobody feels worse than the guys in our bullpen. You can't dwell on it. The more you dwell on things like that, they can permeate your existence."

Maddon claimed, and presumably believes, that he handled his bullpen in the same way "we've been doing all year." But he didn't use one of the game's strongest bullpens the way he often has in the past month, or the way most managers do.

Dealt a royal flush of a seven-run lead, Maddon seemingly said, "I'll take four." Presented with a situation in which normal deployment of his bullpen should have sufficed, he tore up the book, the appendix and all the footnotes to it as well.

With two on and two outs in the seventh and David Ortiz at bat facing righty Grant Balfour, the situation called for a left-hander with power stuff, especially a tough curveball to overpower Ortiz, in an 0-for-17 slump. In other words, it called for Howell, who in fact did face Ortiz later in the game and struck him out easily.

If Howell had come in to face Ortiz in the seventh, the rest of the night would have laid out in normal Rays fashion. Let Howell start the eighth. If he gets in trouble, turn to Chad Bradford. Then, in the ninth, ask closer Dan Wheeler for just one inning -- starting fresh with nobody on base -- since he had his longest outing in years in Game 2, throwing 48 pitches in 3 1/3 gritty innings. If you somehow lose a 7-0 lead using that conventional but sensible progression, then you're just fated to lose.

Instead of that relief progression, Maddon . . . oh, we'll get to that. First, lets have some special pleading and mercy for the Rays, especially the classy Maddon. Perhaps there was one extra dimension to this amazing Boston comeback, an element that must be given its fair weight. At 7-0, visions of a pennant danced in the Rays' heads. Even more, a dream began to take shape of what Tampa Bay might do next week in the World Series against the Phillies. A feat so unique -- few had even conceived of it a month ago -- suddenly was in Tampa Bay's sights. The Rays would have a chance to become the first team in the history of major American pro sports -- baseball, football, basketball or hockey -- to have the worst record in their game in one season, then become world champion the next.

Then it started, the bleeding away of a lead, the gradual decimation of a celebration and, finally, the biggest comeback to prevent elimination in baseball history. There has been one bigger comeback in postseason history -- from eight runs behind in the '29 World Series.

The Red Sox proved why they are the defending world champions, even if they are injured, a bit old and still deep hole. "For the first six innings, they had us every way possible," Boston Manager Terry Francona said. "Then this place came unglued. That was pretty magical."


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