Even at This Point, the Rays Have More to Offer

Seven outs from the World Series, Tampa Bay players take a look as Thursday's potential pennant-clincher at Fenway Park starts to slip away.
Seven outs from the World Series, Tampa Bay players take a look as Thursday's potential pennant-clincher at Fenway Park starts to slip away. (By Jim Mcisaac -- Getty Images)
By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, October 18, 2008

Now, we can't lose. This weekend, we may watch as Boston runs its streak to an incredible 10 straight wins in ALCS elimination games. Bend the laws of probability? The Red Sox would mangle them. The odds of winning 10 straight games against roughly equal foes are about 1,000-to-1. The Sox have now pulled off eight such win-or-go-home LCS games in the span of just three Octobers.

However, if we are even luckier, we will watch an opposite outcome: a Tampa Bay win that sets up an even more incredible improbability. We will see Tampa Bay, after surviving a once-a-century Red Sox comeback on Thursday, reach a World Series where it can accomplish something so off-the-charts we're only starting to grasp it.

What the Red Sox did in Game 5 has been surpassed only once in postseason baseball history. Boston trailed 7-0 in the seventh, but won. Regular as clockwork, every time we get a stock market panic, somebody pulls this trick. In 1929, the Philadelphia Athletics trailed the Cubs 8-0 in Game 4 of the World Series, then scored 10 in the seventh inning.

What Tampa Bay may do this month, however, is utterly unique. Not only to baseball, but in the NFL, NBA and NHL as well. The Devil Rays would go from the worst team in their entire sport to world champions in one year.

Sorry, that would be "Rays." That's how new and ridiculous this all is. By the time you learn that they've changed their name, Tampa Bay has gone from a franchise that never did anything worth remembering in its first 10 years to one that may complete a feat as memorable as any team in American pro sports.

It's almost impossible to digest what the Rays are trying to accomplish because we have no frame of reference. They have rushed up into our faces so fast we haven't got them in focus. Nobody in the NFL or the NHL has even reached a championship game after being dead last. In the NBA, only the 1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers, with rookie Elgin Baylor, reached a title series. In baseball, only the '91 Braves reached the World Series. But Atlanta lost.

The Red Sox' comeback in Game 5 will be remembered for years. But if the Rays go all the way, it'll be one of the sport's treats of a lifetime.

If anything, the suddenness of the Rays' quest almost doesn't seem fair. It's as though we'd been served a nice wine, then were told when we were down to the last sip that it was actually the only Château Lafite-Rothschild we'd ever get to taste. Hey, can we start the meal over and appreciate this properly? Just three weeks ago, the Rays hadn't even iced their division crown. We're not allowed to hit rewind? We have to play catch-up with the tallest tale of a lifetime?

Some, in Tampa, now wear "Rayhawk" haircuts. But, even in Florida, few fans caught this fever until very recently. At their 151st game, the Rays drew only 17,296 to ugly Tropicana Field. The worst club in baseball, the Nationals, outdrew the Rays by 30 percent. It's not a certainty the Rays could even sell out a World Series game.

Because the Rays, and their 97 regular season wins, arrived so quickly, a synopsis is still appropriate. One Rays executive calls the club, "the first post-steroid era team." With the fifth-lowest budget in baseball, the Rays can't afford free agents with dubious ethics. Instead, Tampa Bay has drafted, trade or signed cheap free agents who give them a sleek, young and fast look, with defense everywhere and stolen bases, too. The Rays are the only team in MLB with above average gloves everywhere. Jason Bartlett and Akinori Iwamura turn double plays in a blink.

In the turf-field Trop, the Rays actually have elements of Whitey Herzog's Runnin' Redbird teams in St. Louis in the '80's. Carl Crawford is a triples machine and B.J. Upton stole 44 bases. The Rays' sudden October explosion of power is partly an anomaly. Their 180 homers were plenty. If Carlos Peña and Evan Longoria had been healthier, both might have had 35 homers and 120 RBI. And Upton, who hit only nine homers all season, but has three in this ALCS, may be a 30-homer man someday.

But swinging for the fences isn't their main game. The Rays love the whole offensive game and enjoy taking the extra base and challenging outfield arms. For the ALCS, the Rays actually kept speedster Fernando Pérez on the roster instead of Eric Hinske (20 homers); Pérez won Game 2 with speed, scoring on a short sacrifice fly to end the game.

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