Rays see light, improbable Series berth

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

BOSTON – This is fiction. Right? A mirage. Hmmm. Computer-generated hocus pocus? Gotta be. Or a hallucination. No? Then a government conspiracy.

OK, then. How to explain the Tampa Bay Rays?

"Improbable," Rocco Baldelli said, "to every single person who's ever followed baseball."

Yeah. That's about right. That's who they are. The Improbables. The no-names pulling off the craziest, most inexplicable, damndest run in baseball in, what, the last 25 years? Fifty?


"I don't think anyone would've bet, unless someone was crazy and threw a wager down after a couple drinks in Vegas in the preseason," Baldelli said. "That's the only time anyone would've bet that we were going to go to the World Series."

Well, they're not there quite yet. The Rays still have to beat the Boston Red Sox once more to capture the American League pennant, though following a 13-4 throttling Tuesday night in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, it looks more a foregone conclusion than hope.

The Rays are playing with the force of a natural disaster, whole and unrelenting and implacable, and they have embarrassed the defending champions twice in their own cocoon of safety, Fenway Park. Too young to know better, too good to do worse, The Improbables own a 3-1 advantage in the best-of-seven series and can plunge the wooden dagger Thursday against Daisuke Matsuzaka.

He threw six no-hit innings against the Rays in Game 1. Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz intimated that night the Rays looked scared. Since that game, Tampa Bay opened an offensive spigot like few in history: 31 runs, 10 home runs, two aces embarrassed (Jon Lester, Josh Beckett) and one message emanating from the clubhouse.

As improbable as this may be, it is real.

"It's not anything for us to get complacent about," Rays pitcher Edwin Jackson said. "But definitely we can see the light right now. And it's a matter of chasing it and giving it all we have and seeing what path the light takes us on in the end."

Ah, the path. This is not Frost's road less traveled. This road never existed. The Rays were the worst franchise in professional sports. Them winning was Charlie Brown actually kicking the ball. The confluence of events to trigger such an unlikelihood was so kinetic that even one missing link would have broken the chain.

At the top, they needed Joe Maddon, Father Improbable, the man with the horn-rimmed glasses and the voracious hunger for knowledge and the tendency to take the Book, baseball's code of right and wrong, and torch it like a present-day vanity bonfire. From the beginning of spring training, when the Rays were still losers, he has imbued them with the thirst for success.

They've lapped it up. Baldelli, the outfielder who continues to play through mitochondrial myopathy, a disease that saps the energy factories in his body. And Fernando Perez, the September call-up who would be a fiction writer if he weren't such a good baseball player. And Willy Aybar, he of the troubled past – rehab for booze last year, arrest for allegedly beating his wife this offseason – trying to do something right.

Aybar drove in five runs Tuesday, two coming on a home run launched over the Green Monster, the seats atop it and the banner advertisement above them. The ball kept flying into the crisp Boston evening, stealing with it the remainder of Red Sox Nation's will, most of which had been pilfered in the first inning with Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria home runs.

The Rays hit like they meant it, piling on five more runs in the sixth inning to extend their lead to 11-1, and this series advantage felt different from the 3-1 deficit the Red Sox made up against Cleveland in last year's ALCS or the 3-0 miracle they pulled off against New York in 2004. The Rays bullpen – a who's who of Improbables, from Grant Balfour (cut during spring training) to Chad Bradford (with his 76-mph fastball) to J.P. Howell (who couldn't cut the mustard in Kansas City) – laughed together at what surrounded them.

They were humiliating the Red Sox.

They were one win away from hosting Game 1 of the World Series.

"We've been playing this way all year," Longoria said. "It's just taken us a little longer to come into the national stage and show the rest of the baseball people we can play this way."

Consider them shown. This should be no surprise. The Rays did not win 97 games in the American League East on luck. They are not some assemblage of semi-talents pulling victories out of various orifices. Were they, Pena, the slugging first baseman, certainly would not have locked himself into a contract extension during the offseason – against the best advice of his agent, Scott Boras, who sees free agency as life's greatest gift to ballplayers.

"I've never played in a place where I enjoyed baseball so much," Pena said.

He appreciates his teammates and coaches as much as the narrative that they've woven, the one that now is so close to marrying the Rays and the World Series, the oddest since Lyle Lovett landed Julia Roberts.

"It's one of those things where someone mentions 'World Series' and 'Rays,' you can't really believe it," said Carl Crawford, 5-for-5 in Game 4 and another true Improbable. A torn tendon in his finger was supposed to keep him out, his doctors said, until the World Series. And imagining that kind of run necessitated more pixie dust than Crawford was willing to inhale.

"We was always in last place two weeks into the season," he said.

Crawford is the longest-tenured Ray, six years of misery preceding this one. As he cherished it, the 38,133 at Fenway wondered what happened. Their team, injured and old and ineffective, had laid a monumental egg, and all they could do was slam their seats and derisively clap at outs and drunkenly razz the bullpen.

So dire was the outlook, the men's bathroom line in the right-field concourse during a bases-loaded situation in the sixth inning stretched 40 people long. Quite the metaphor.

The Rays, meanwhile, kept hitting, pitching, playing – doing what they've done for 6 ½ months. They don't ask how or why. They just win, improbable though it – and they – may be.

"Actually," Longoria said, "it's pretty unbelievable."

Yeah. That's about right, too.

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