To reach the 2008 postseason, the Chicago White Sox had to shrug off a September slump and win their final three games, including a one-game playoff.
The Tampa Bay Rays merely had to cast aside a decade’s worth of ineptitude and futility.
Each team looks to continue its unlikely run when the clubs meet in the AL division series beginning Thursday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
After setting the pace in the AL Central for most of the summer, a White Sox team hampered by injuries endured a five-game losing streak and fell one-half game behind Minnesota entering the final Sunday of the regular season. Chicago, though, beat Cleveland 5-1 and defeated Detroit 8-2 in a Monday makeup game to force a one-game playoff with the Twins.
Tuesday’s contest against Minnesota remained scoreless until the seventh inning, when Jim Thome hit the ball an estimated 461 feet for his 541st home run. Starter John Danks and closer Bobby Jenks made the run stand up as the White Sox (89-74) beat the Twins 1-0 for their first division title since 2005, when they went on to win the World Series.
“We bounce back every time we are against the wall,” White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said.
Chicago’s story, though, pales in comparison to that of a Tampa Bay club which produced one of the most stunning turnarounds in major league history.
The Rays - known as the Devil Rays from their 1998 inception through 2007 - endured a hellish first decade. They never won more than 70 games in a season while finishing last in the AL East in all but one of those years and playing before seas of empty seats at Tropicana Field.
All of that changed along with the team’s name in 2008. Despite the second-lowest opening-day payroll in the majors, a young core of Rays including third baseman Evan Longoria, center fielder B.J. Upton and ace Scott Kazmir - all 24 years old or younger - jelled. Tampa Bay took the East lead from Boston the day after the All-Star break and never relinquished it, finishing 97-65 to claim the division crown over the well-heeled Red Sox and New York Yankees.
Even the Rays’ long-dormant fan base eventually gravitated to the team, which sold out three of its final five home games.
“Believe it or not, I kept on saying last year we had something special,” said first baseman Carlos Pena, a grizzled veteran at age 30 who led the team with 30 home runs and 102 RBIs.
“Even though we were in last place and had a record that we weren’t really happy with, I could just see in this clubhouse something special. I kept saying it, and I’m sure people thought I was just saying that. But look at this.”
The Rays defied the odds with strong pitching (their 3.82 ERA was third-best in the majors), an opportunistic offense that won an AL-best 29 one-run games and rare camaraderie in the clubhouse. Many Tampa Bay players - and even manager Joe Maddon - sported mohawk haircuts for the stretch drive.
“The last couple of years, you didn’t find this kind of chemistry in this room. Everyone is genuinely happy for each other. … You just don’t see that,” said starter James Shields, who will take the ball for the Rays in Game 1. “It’s half the reason we’re where we are.”
Shields (14-8, 3.56 ERA) is another big reason. The right-hander tied Edwin Jackson for the staff lead in wins, and went 10-3 with a 3.30 ERA in his final 19 starts. He was especially strong at home, going 9-2 with a 2.59 ERA in 17 outings at Tropicana Field.
Shields is 0-1 with a 4.15 ERA in two career starts against the White Sox. Thome is 3-for-9 with a homer against him.
Tampa Bay left fielder Carl Crawford is hoping to be in the lineup after missing most of the season’s final seven weeks with a finger injury that required surgery. He played two innings of Sunday’s regular season finale, then went 0-for-4 in an Instructional League game Monday but reported no discomfort.
“I don’t know what (Maddon) is going to do. I just have to try to do my best to keep showing them that I’m ready to play,” said Crawford, Tampa Bay’s franchise leader in games played, hits, runs and stolen bases. “I thought I did enough today. I didn’t get any hits, but I showed them the bat speed is still there.”
The White Sox have more serious injury woes. They reached the postseason without slugger Carlos Quentin after he broke his right wrist Sept. 1 while hitting his bat in frustration, and back problems have sidelined third baseman Joe Crede. Neither player is expected to return in the playoffs.
After using Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd and Danks to start their three must-win games, the White Sox will turn to struggling Javier Vazquez (12-16, 4.67) in Game 1. The right-hander was 5-4 with a 3.43 ERA at the end of May but faded after that point, going 7-12 with a 5.41 ERA over his final 21 starts.
Vazquez’s last three outings were particularly bad. He lost all three while posting a 13.50 ERA, never lasting through the fifth.
Vazquez is 5-4 with a 4.36 ERA in 12 career starts versus Tampa Bay, and 1-2 with a 3.54 ERA in three starts this season. Crawford is 11-for-26 (.423) with three doubles and two triples against him, but Pena is 2-for-17 (.118) with 10 strikeouts.
Buehrle is scheduled to oppose Kazmir in Friday’s Game 2.