CHICAGO (AP)—They rushed toward the mound, these remarkable Rays, and immediately formed a circle. Jumping together like fraternity brothers, they resembled party regulars in the postseason.
Worst in the majors last year, Tampa Bay will play for a spot in the World Series.
“It means everything. We’ve been at the bottom of the barrel for so long,” B.J. Upton said Monday after homering twice in a 6-2 win over Chicago that clinched their AL playoff. “I think there was a point in time where people didn’t even know who we were.”
They do now, for sure.
Andy Sonnanstine pitched 5 2-3 solid innings and manager Joe Maddon’s surprising Rays won 3-1 in the best-of-five series—their first trip to the postseason. Next up, they’ll host wild-card Boston in Game 1 of the AL championship series Friday night.
“We feel like we belong and it’s showing right now,” Upton said.
They want more, too. So why stop now?
“Like Carlos (Pena) said, we’re kind of a fraternity. And we stick together at all times no matter what happens,” Upton said. “As long as we keep that attitude and continue playing as a team, and doing the little things to win, I don’t think there’s any reason why we can’t win this whole thing.”
After staving off elimination several times and winning a tiebreaker for the AL Central title, the White Sox were finally knocked out.
The loss dashed Chicago’s hope for a championship—days ago, local fans were thinking the Cubs and White Sox might meet in a Windy City Classic. But the Cubs got swept by the Dodgers and now both teams are done.
“They played better than us. There’s no doubt. They pitched better. They execute better. They got big hits,” White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. “They really did a tremendous job.”
Upton, the game’s second batter, homered to left-center to put the Rays ahead. He went deep again in the third, driving a full-count pitch from Gavin Floyd to center, and the confident Rays had a two-run cushion.
Tampa Bay, which never won more than 70 games during its 10 previous seasons, went from 96 losses last year to 97 wins and passed the big-spending Red Sox and New York Yankees in the AL East.
“It’s good for baseball for a team like Tampa to win,” White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said. “It’s too bad they had to beat us, but it’s good for the game.”
No longer bedeviled, the Rays won all year with young talent and improved pitching. Sonnanstine, who pitched a three-hit shutout against the White Sox at Tropicana Field in April, reversed a late-season slide that saw him go winless in his final seven starts.
“Obviously, this is an incredible accomplishment and we’re going to take tonight and really enjoy it, but when you are mired in the day-to-day it’s hard to step back and appreciate what we’ve accomplished this year,” Rays general manager Andrew Friedman said. “We’re focused on having two more celebrations.”
Upton, who hit nine homers in 531 at-bats during the regular season, also homered in Sunday’s 5-3 loss. Benched by Maddon during the season for not hustling, the talented 24-year-old’s power display came against a team that relied on homers all year and led the majors in long balls.
“B.J.’s special,” Maddon said. “He’s very capable of those types of games.”
Tampa Bay increased the lead to 4-0 in the fourth when Carl Crawford walked and scored as veteran Cliff Floyd, a Chicago native, doubled to left. Dioner Navarro followed with an RBI single to finish Floyd.
Paul Konerko hit a solo homer for the White Sox in the bottom half and the white towel-waving crowd dressed in black had a reason to get excited. But Tampa Bay struck right back in the fifth against Clayton Richard as Akinori Iwamura singled and scored on Pena’s single that made it 5-1.
Jermaine Dye hit a solo home run in the sixth to finish Sonnanstine.
“Hats off to him,” Upton said. “He threw a great game when we needed it.”
Tampa Bay kept adding on and Pena hit his second RBI single in the seventh— after the White Sox intentionally walked Upton. Guillen, apparently upset when a close pitch from Matt Thornton to Pena was called a ball, had a conversation with plate umpire Jeff Kellogg as he headed back to the dugout after a trip to the mound.
The White Sox defeated Cleveland on the final Sunday of the season to get to a makeup game with Detroit the following day. They beat the Tigers and then Minnesota, 1-0.
After losing the first two games of this series at Tropicana Field despite leading in both, the White Sox came back home to win Sunday. And they were hoping for another three-game winning streak—but the Rays were too good.
“When you have to play playoff baseball the last two weeks of the regular season, it’s just so hard to get over that first hump,” Konerko said. “We just ran out of gas.”
And now Maddon, who likes fashionable eye wear, fine wines, good books and inspirational slogans, has pushed a decade-long loser onto the doorstep of a pennant.
“We all came together and said we’re going to play team ball,” Upton said. “That’s what we do, day in and day out.”
Earlier in the week, Maddon spotted some fans on his way to U.S. Cellular Field wearing “retro Devil Rays stuff.” He’ll be looking for even more signs of the team’s new popularity when he honeymoons in Europe next month.
“My goal is to see someone walking around either Rome or, you know, Barcelona or somewhere with Rays gear on,” he added, promising to photograph it.
Maddon pointed to the Rays’ ability to bounce back after losing their final seven games before the All-Star break as a big test. And he hasn’t spent a lot of time reflecting on how he has taken a team that had 10 straight losing season — with at least 91 losses in each of those years—to the playoffs.
But he was enjoying the way his team reached and then recognized its achievement.
“Our guys are really good celebrators by the way. Very proud of them in that regard,” Maddon said.
“You got to go for it. The one thing I told our players post All-Star break is to treat this situation with respect. And they have. We have. In other words, you are not going to be in this situation on an annual basis.”