Rays squeeze speed out of Big Brown in win

Jeff Passan

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Carlos Pena interlocked his fingers. He looked toward the roof of Tropicana Field from the dugout. He said out loud, for all his teammates to hear, "Oh, Lord, please." And then he watched Big Brown rumble.

Rumble, actually, is a kind way to describe the act of Cliff Floyd taking his pieces and parts, all the bones and joints and ligaments that comprise his listed-at-230-but-probably-closer-to-250-pound body, and propelling them forward. It is more like trudge. Or maybe sputter.

It sure isn't running, which is what a squeeze play generally calls for from the man standing on third base. So when Pena saw the sign coming in from the bench calling for Floyd to dash home, out went his request, skyward, for divine intervention, because some sort of deity had to be involved if the Rays were going to drop a bunt then and there.

Naturally, it worked. On the second time, of course. As if Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon weren't mad enough to pull the squeeze with Floyd on third, he saw Jason Bartlett foul off the first bunt and had the audacity to call it again. Bartlett laid it down. Floyd scored easily. And so went the seminal moment of the Rays' 4-2 victory in Game 2 that evened the World Series at a game apiece Thursday night.

Not that this should any longer be a surprise, that Maddon would defy all things conventional – and, sure, reasonable – launch a throaty goober at The Book and send a 35-year-old derisively nicknamed Big Brown on the first squeeze of his career.

"He may be big and middle-aged, but he can run pretty good," Bartlett said. "I don't want to drop the O-word on him."

In baseball, 35 is the line of demarcation for the retirement community, and Floyd does play the wise, old hound in a clubhouse of puppies. The Rays brought him in this season for that purpose. Not even the wildest fiction would have placed him on the third-base line in a must-have World Series game, home plate the jalopy's destination.

"Speed kills, baby," Floyd said.

Soon after, Floyd corrected himself and admitted: "I'm slow. Let's get that right. I'm slow." His knees are a mess, the right one sliced open in April to repair a torn meniscus. Wear and tear over his 16-year career limited him to designated-hitter duty this year for the first time in his career.

So when he looked into the dugout and saw the sign for a squeeze, Floyd did a double take. The Rays' 23 sacrifice bunts were the fewest in the major leagues. Floyd turned to third-base coach Tom Foley and asked if he missed the sign. He hadn't.

On the first try, Floyd burst toward home with such force that had Bartlett missed the bunt, it would have been a surefire out. In the bullpen, as Rays reliever J.P. Howell saw Floyd running, he said, "Oh, no, man."

The feelings were mutual elsewhere. Maddon tried to pull a quick one. Didn't work. Move on, right?

Even Floyd figured the Phillies would try to pitch out once, just in case. They didn't, and Maddon called for a safety squeeze, allowing Floyd to make a judgment call on whether to go home. When Bartlett's bunt skated past pitcher Brett Myers, the Rays had sent home their third run of the game on an out.

In the first inning, they scored twice on groundouts, a complete reversal from the power-hitting monsters they played in the American League Championship Series against Boston. Never had the Rays been a team wholly dependent on the longball, conquering big beasts – the New York Yankees, the Red Sox and, biggest of all, their own demons borne of decade-long futility – without its benefit.

Game 2 was a return to the pitching-, defense- and speed-dependent team that got by, even when the hitters needed to scratch out a few runs. James Shields threw 5 2/3 shutout innings. Rookie pitcher David Price looked powerful, if a bit vulnerable, getting the final seven outs. The Rays caught the ball well. And their running kept the Phillies on tilt.

Well, sort-of-running.

"I don't want to say a turtle," Shields said, trying to find the most apt comparison for Floyd's swiftness, "because he did steal a bag this year."

Now that is something, when teammates remember a single stolen base as a momentous occasion. It happened June 13. When Florida catcher Matt Treanor threw the ball into center field.

Oh, well. At least Floyd can say he stole 27 bases in 1998. And that he tries to set examples by stretching singles into doubles. And that he can outrun at least one teammate.

"If a catcher beats you running," Floyd said, "the end is not far."

So the question was posed to Dioner Navarro, the Rays' rotund catcher: Who would win a foot race between the two?

"I've got him by a lot," Navarro said. "You know what? We're kind of banged up right now, so we'll wait until next year. Spring training. It's going down.

"I'm doing a press conference the day before. Whatever he want. Bring it on. I'm planning to lose 20 pounds for next year."

While Navarro is no Molina brother, he isn't exactly Usain Bolt, either. If Floyd moves like molasses, Navarro is more like sludge. There is a good reason Maddon has not called for a squeeze with Navarro this season.

Turns out there was a good one, too, for him pulling the lever Thursday night and coming up triple 7s again.

"Cliff can run," Pena said.

Or at least something like it.