It’s been a breakthrough year for the Tampa Bay Rays, who posted their first winning season and advanced to the playoffs for the first time with their first division title. After winning the first two postseason games in franchise history, the club is on the verge of yet another milestone.
The Rays look to sweep their first playoff series and advance to the ALCS as they visit the Chicago White Sox for Game 3 of the teams’ division series Sunday.
Tampa Bay finished in last place in the AL East in nine of its first 10 seasons, never winning more than 70 games and establishing a reputation as one of baseball’s sorriest franchises.
The Rays, though, have done a remarkable job in shedding that label in 2008. They turned the corner by winning 97 games in the regular season and becoming the first team other than the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees to win the division since 1997.
The Rays don’t appear satisfied with just making the postseason. After rookie third baseman Evan Longoria delivered two home runs in a 6-4 victory over the White Sox in Game 1 on Thursday, Tampa Bay got a strong start from Scott Kazmir and a go-ahead home run from Akinori Iwamura in a 6-2 win Friday night.
“I like the attitude,” said manager Joe Maddon, whose team is the seventh-youngest in the majors and the youngest in this year’s playoff field. “I like the way we’re going about our business.”
Though the Rays have reason to be confident, they’re not taking anything for granted against the more experienced White Sox.
“These are the Chicago White Sox. They’re a veteran team. They can come back and win three easy if you let them,” reliever J.P. Howell said. “We gotta go like we have been.”
The White Sox are hoping to shake things up after dropping their first two postseason games since going 11-1 in the 2005 playoffs, including a four-game sweep of Houston in the World Series that ended the club’s 87-year championship drought.
“We’re against the wall,” manager Ozzie Guillen said after Friday’s defeat. “We’ve got to fight like a cat, and now it’s a must-win game.”
Chicago has fared well in such contests. It beat Cleveland last Sunday to stay alive in the playoff hunt, then defeated Detroit in a makeup game the following day to force a tiebreaker with Minnesota. In their third consecutive do-or-die game, the White Sox beat the Twins 1-0 on Tuesday to clinch the AL Central title.
Chicago, though, will likely need its bats to awaken to stay alive again. The White Sox had 12 hits Friday, but all of them were singles. They went 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position, and stranded 12 on base.
“In the playoffs, it all boils down to pitching, defense and timely hitting,” outfielder Jermaine Dye told the team’s official Web site. “We haven’t done (the timely hitting) yet.”
Part of the reason for Chicago’s struggles at the plate is Tampa Bay’s pitching, which was second in the AL with a 3.82 ERA in the regular season. As impressive as the Rays have been, however, the White Sox aren’t willing to concede anything.
“I will never admit that a team is better than us until they beat us and finish us off,” catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. “They’re a good team, but we’re veterans and we’ve been through this before and we know it’s not over until it’s finished. We’re going to go home to our park, get out of this dome, have real baseball and see what happens.”
Chicago, which was 54-28 at U.S. Cellular Field during the regular season, will hand the ball to John Danks (12-9, 3.32 ERA) on Sunday.
This is the first postseason start for Danks, but the 23-year-old left-hander has some big-game experience. Pitching on short rest in Tuesday night’s tiebreaker, Danks held the Twins to two hits in eight innings. He took a no-hitter into the fifth, and let only one baserunner get into scoring position.
“I’ve been riding a pretty high confidence level right now,” Danks said Friday. “… Experiencing the atmosphere and pitching well, I think it helped.”
Danks, though, knows his strong outing last week won’t have much of an impact on Sunday’s start.
“Tampa Bay doesn’t care anything about that game,” he said. “They don’t care how I did, and what I did in that game doesn’t help in this game. Obviously being in that atmosphere helps, but I still have to go out there and make pitches and get the job done.”
Danks is 3-1 with a 2.96 ERA in four career starts against the Rays, including 2-1 with a 1.86 ERA in 2008.
He’ll match up against Matt Garza (11-9, 3.70), also making his first career postseason start. The right-hander failed to last more than five innings in any of his last three regular-season outings, posting a 5.52 ERA in that stretch. He’s 1-1 with a 4.97 ERA in three career starts against the White Sox.
Game 4 of this series, if necessary, will be Monday at U.S. Cellular Field.