The Rays are ready to inspire a nation

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – They won at 5 p.m.

It was three hours before Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, and the Tampa Bay Rays were sitting around their clubhouse, listening to the words of a teammate. And it was beginning to sink in, the whole idea of the World Series opening in the middle of Florida and its eyesore of a stadium instead of Boston and its relic. And they were relishing the thought of sending home the defending world champions and introducing the country to a team that deserves its full embrace.

"Because we're inspirational," Rays pitcher Scott Kazmir said.

Anyone who saw the ALCS – who witnessed the Rays surge ahead and lose momentum and somehow conjure up enough will to conquer the Boston Red Sox with a 3-1 victory Sunday night in Game 7 that sends them to the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies – surely will agree. It was a classic end to a classic series featuring the classic American story: an underdog that through its talent and determination overcomes great odds to win.

And even though the season had been a training ground for this moment, the do-or-die game, when batting practice beckoned at 5 p.m., Carlos Pena told his teammates to gather around him. On the drive home from the Game 6 loss at Tropicana Field that tied the series 3-3, Pena considered calling a team meeting. He thought about it again Sunday morning. He asked Cliff Floyd, one of the team's elders, for permission, and Floyd gave his blessing.

So Pena – the 30-year-old dumped by four organizations, including Boston, and the team's conscience who all week has stuffed local newspapers in the nearest trash can to shield his teammates from any negativity – preached his usual bromides before delivering the profundity that stuck with the Rays.

"The challenge isn't to beat Boston," he said. "It's to be ourselves."

In the corner, a 6-foot-4 right-hander with a gifted arm and flammable temper peered in intently. The Rays acquired Matt Garza this offseason to address their shortage of pitchers, and they were asking him to get them to the World Series.

After Garza threw the first pitch of the game, a 94-mph fastball, he kicked dirt off the mound, inhaled and pronounced himself ready to go. Since the middle of the season, Garza has worked with a sports psychologist to balance his emotions. On the brim of his cap, he writes phrases – reminders, really – to calm himself. He reveals them to no one, not even his coaches.

Garza needed them after the second hitter, Dustin Pedroia, launched a home run over the left-field fence. When the inning ended, Garza chided himself all the way up the tunnel into the clubhouse, where, since the beginning of the postseason, he has retreated during Rays at-bats.

There, he meets with assistant pitching coach Brian Anderson, and they go over the plan for the next inning. Garza, too busy lamenting the changeup he threw Pedroia, couldn't focus. Anderson calmed him. Garza readied for the next half-inning and walked toward the tunnel. Before he exited, he turned around.

"This is my game," Garza said. "I got 'em. That's all they get."

For the next five innings, the Red Sox did not muster a hit. Garza stared down Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz and J.D. Drew, all of Boston's big bats, and he pitched with the conviction that has embodied the Rays all season. Meanwhile, as he and Anderson discussed Garza's approach, he missed Evan Longoria doubling in a run to tie the score and Rocco Baldelli's fifth-inning RBI single that gave the Rays a 2-1 lead.

Whenever the Red Sox tried to answer, Garza stifled them. Ortiz swung through his 100th pitch, and catcher Dioner Navarro's pea caught a running Pedroia for a double play to end the sixth. The next inning, Garza allowed two runners before striking out Jason Varitek to escape trouble.

Garza returned to the dugout. Before meeting with Anderson, he told Rays manager Joe Maddon: "I'm not leaving." Maddon nodded his head.

Maddon joined the Rays in 2006, a longtime coach in the Los Angeles Angels organization. He wears horn-rimmed glasses and the countenance of a man who knows a lot, and he does, his appetite for knowledge ever voracious. In turning around the Rays, he has earned the reputation as both a players' manager and a rebel, an odd duality he has somehow navigated.

Much of the blame for the Rays' devastating Game 5 loss was cast toward Maddon. He had mismanaged his bullpen and allowed the Red Sox to turn a 7-0 deficit into an 8-7 victory. Residual momentum spilled into a Game 6 victory, and here they were, in Game 7, everything at stake.

Maddon, always in search of perspective, had heard earlier in the day from Scott Challis, whose 18-year-old son, John, died in August of cancer. John's story touched Maddon, who reached out and struck up a friendship. Scott had placed a Rays hat on John's tombstone and taken a photograph. Maddon put it in the Rays' training room, just to remind his players.

They noticed. And they appreciated his effort to lessen the specter of a Game 7, however heavy it loomed.

"Manage the game of your life," reliever Trever Miller said to him.

Here was his chance. Maddon lifted Garza after shortstop Jason Bartlett kicked a ground ball to start the eighth. From there, he would unveil a bullpen plan he and pitching coach Jim Hickey had discussed for two innings.

First, they summoned closer Dan Wheeler, whose ability to throw strikes and field well matched up with Coco Crisp, a good bunter, and Pedroia. Crisp singled. Pedroia flied out. Next, in came left-hander J.P. Howell to face Ortiz. This was Maddon's mea culpa from Game 5, when Ortiz homered off right-hander Grant Balfour. Howell induced an Ortiz groundout.

Submariner Chad Bradford came next, his groundball propensity the perfect antidote to the power-hitting Youkilis. With Willy Aybar having tacked on an insurance run with a seventh-inning homer, the last thing the Rays wanted was a Youkilis shot. Bradford walked him.

So what then? In the sixth inning, Maddon asked Hickey whether he'd be confident throwing rookie David Price, he of 15 major league innings' experience, against Drew. Hickey's reply was unmistakable: "Hell yeah."

Price, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft, had languished in the Rays' bullpen, figuring he wasn't going to throw any meaningful innings. So when he started warming up, and when Maddon tapped his left arm to signal that he wanted a greenhorn, in a bases-loaded situation, against the guy who had won Game 5, with the World Series on the line – suffice to say, Price entered with a normal amount of trepidation.

"First-pitch slider," Maddon said, and that was it.

There was no distinct scouting report on Price. No teams had seen him for an extended period. What seemed so disadvantageous was actually a huge advantage.

"Most people at home are thinking, 'What the hell are we doing,' " said Rays outfielder Fernando Perez, a minor league teammate of Price's this season. "Everybody in our dugout was thinking, 'That's exactly what we want.' "

Price struck out Drew with two sliders and a 97-mph fastball on the outside corner. Maddon brought him out again in the ninth inning, and by the time Akinori Iwamura touched second base for a force out, the Rays were in the World Series and Miller had something new to whisper in Maddon's ear.

"You just managed the game of your life," he said.

The celebration that unfurled was vintage Rays, vintage going back only a month, of course. Half the team took a victory lap around the stadium, spraying bubbly into the crowd, jumping to high-five fans leaning over the outfield wall. Everyone took a turn kissing the AL championship trophy, dissecting its finer points. Perez took a bite out of the gold league emblem atop it.

The elation and revelry and booze gave the Rays time to reflect upon what they had done, how they had accomplished it and why it should so resonate. The first is easy: They could be the 1991 Braves, worst-to-first wonders or miracle champions like the 1969 Mets. The second, too: An emphasis on scouting and player development, combined with bright young management and a new owner, had infused the Rays with the know-how and wherewithal to dig themselves from the horrific decade that began in 1998.

Why, though? Well, that's the material question, the one America must ask itself when it considers whether the Rays are worth the time and energy.

"Because it's one of the greatest stories in baseball history," Hickey said.

He's not dabbling in hyperbole. The Rays are so far from their predecessors – the woebegone, moribund, pathetic, should-be-contracted Devil Rays – that they're a wholly different franchise, the sort that even the standard bearers in Boston can appreciate.

Though the Red Sox aren't the only ones. At 12:30 a.m., the carpet soaked and the party still raging, a rumor started to circulate around the Rays' clubhouse.

"We're going to meet Obama," Floyd said.

"What?" Price said.

"O-ba-ma," Floyd said.

"We're going to meet Obama?" Price said. "What time?"

"Twelve," Floyd said. "You going?"

"Yeah, I'm going," Price said.

"Good," Floyd said, "because he's gonna want to see you."

Turns out Barack Obama has a rally planned in Tampa on Monday. Though a Rays spokesman couldn't immediately confirm Floyd's plans, it works on the surface.

This is a team Obama would love.

"This is a grassroots enterprise," Perez said. "We have all these different pieces, and when you put us together, we're as good as anybody in the world."

Yes, they are. Yes, they are.

And the change – well, that's also rather profound. Even last year, the Rays were defined not by their play but by the chicanery of outfielder Elijah Dukes, who in the middle of the season allegedly threatened via text message to kill his ex-wife and their children. It was typical Rays, disaster after disaster, incompetence not just limited to the field.

"You've seen where we've come from over the last couple years," Maddon said. "To see our guys react as they have and grow up as they have in such a short amount of time, to me, is the most impressive part of this and the one I'm so aware of nurturing in the future."

Perhaps no one has grown like Garza. His rage flared earlier in the season, when he and Navarro fought in between innings in the dugout. Now they share lunch with each other on off-days, talking food, music, life and, sure, baseball.

It's what binds them, what brings the Rays together and allows them to create their magic. Garza was so busy celebrating among his teammates, sponging in their praise and love, that he'd forgotten his most important task of the night.

Garza weaved past his locker, which held his ALCS MVP award, and past one of the inspirational signs that Maddon hung in the Rays' clubhouse. He swung into a back room and pulled a phone from his pocket. And he did something that every American wondering about this team, every person who might soon learn about the Rays, can appreciate.

He called his mom and told her he loved her.