Rays made everybody believers
From last place to Fall Classic, young club exceeded expectations
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Tampa Bay Rays opened the 2008 season with little prestige and mixed expectations, even from those within the organization's walls.
Ace Scott Kazmir made waves just mentioning the playoffs in the spring, a lofty goal considering the Rays had nothing to drawn on but 10 straight losing seasons.
But the long odds didn't stop the young squad from stepping up, rolling the dice and hitting the collective jackpot.
Sure, the naysayers will focus on the Rays' inability to win the World Series -- highlighted by three straight losses in Philadelphia -- but make no mistake, Tampa Bay's turnaround from worst-to-first -- seizing an American League championship in the process -- was nothing short of extraordinary.
"I think it's improbable to every single person who's ever followed baseball, to be honest with you," outfielder Rocco Baldelli said. "We knew we had some good players, but I don't think anyone would have bet -- unless they were crazy and threw a wager down after a couple of drinks in Vegas -- and bet on us in the preseason."
So how did last year's Devil Rays become this year's Cinderella story?
Some could point to the name change, or to the Rays' new uniforms and colors. There are the obvious additions, like AL Rookie of the Year Award favorite Evan Longoria and offseason acquisitions Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett.
But the real magic in 2008 was Tampa Bay's ability to come together as one cohesive unit with the belief that it could win.
"It's about [the fact that] everybody in this building believes in this," Cliff Floyd said after the Rays had beaten the White Sox to take the AL Division Series. "That's what matters. It's gotten us to this point right now, and I believe it will continue to get better and better."
Floyd's words were a telling sign of what was to come for the Rays in the AL Championship Series vs. the Red Sox. After jumping out to a commanding 3-1 series lead against Boston, Tampa Bay squandered a seven-run cushion in the seventh inning of Game 5 and then lost Game 6. The series went to a do-or-die Game 7, but the young Rays prevailed on the back of Garza's stunning seven-plus-inning performance.
CARRY A BIG STICK
|Most homers by one club in a postseason|
"This team, when something has happened already, we're really good at putting it behind us," left fielder Carl Crawford said. "That's what we did -- [we] put it behind us and went out there and played our game and kept on playing hard."
A raucous celebration on and off the field followed that saw Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg presented the William Harridge Trophy for winning the AL pennant. Several yards away, Kazmir stood in disbelief among the hugs and cheers.
"I knew we were going to be good, but never in a million years would I ever have expected this," Kazmir said. "I don't think anyone did, until we got halfway done with the season. After that, we knew -- we knew we had something."
That something started as early as Spring Training, when Minor Leaguer Elliot Johnson leveled Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli, and New York manager Joe Girardi said sarcastically, "He was playing hard. Great. That's just not the time to do it." A few days later, a rematch was highlighted by Jonny Gomes' takedown of Shelly Duncan.
Although the contest was a meaningless Grapefruit League game, the Rays had made their point: they were a force to be reckoned with.
Tampa Bay opened the first month of the season 15-12, and James Shields turned in a dominating two-hit shutout against the Red Sox to complete a three-game sweep at Tropicana Field. But despite the Rays' auspicious beginning, few outside of the clubhouse believed the young squad was for real.
Fodder for this belief came the first time Tampa Bay went to Fenway Park at the start of May and got swept in three games. But how the club responded to that setback established a tone for the season.
The Rays left Boston and took two out of three from the Blue Jays in Toronto. In the third game of the Toronto series, Tampa Bay blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning, then came back to take an 8-3 win in 13 innings. After the win, Maddon could not help but marvel at his team's accomplishments in the game.
"That's the kind of game where if you lose it, going into tomorrow, it's really rather devastating," Maddon said. "But then again, when you win it with this kind of script, then it can be something that can catapult you in a positive way."
|"Somewhere along the way, we learned how to win."|
|-- James Shields|
A pattern of walk-off wins was established and a number of heroes -- Crawford, Gabe Gross, Hinske, B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena -- stepped forward to provide the clutch hitting to fuel the late-inning heroics.
By the time the season approached the midway point, the rest of the AL East was forced to take a good long look at the new kids on the block.
"Somewhere along the way, we learned how to win," Shields said. "I think those sweeps we had early in the season, those were first-place teams -- like the Cubs -- ones that were supposed to go to the World Series, and we hung with them and actually swept them. Those wins gave us a lot of confidence."
So the Rays' train kept chugging along, sidestepping a seven-game slide going into the All-Star break with relative ease. Maddon had one message for his club during that stretch: treat this moment with respect.
The skipper -- who won a World Series ring as bench coach with the Angels in 2002 -- knew how fleeting success can be in a sport like baseball, and he wanted the Rays to understand what an opportunity they had.
|Most homers in first playoff appearance|
"You talk about growth moments," Floyd said. "But they don't only happen on the field."
In the Rays' case, they seemingly happened overnight, as the season's final months produced a team that adversity could bend, but not break.
In August, the Rays lost Crawford, Longoria and closer Troy Percival to injury in the same week.
If there were a time to fold the tents, this should have been it. Instead, the team once again rose to the occasion.
Willy Aybar filled in admirably at third base, while Maddon successfully juggled players in left and right fields and in the bullpen.
Just like that, the Rays compiled a 21-7 mark in August to carry a 5 1/2-game lead in the AL East into September, and they celebrated a division championship in Detroit.
"People have counted us out from Day 1," Floyd said, prior to the ALCS' win-or-go-home Game 7. "So this is an opportunity to see what we are made of. We are going to stick together as a family here, and no matter what happens, we are going to go out there and give it our all, and that's it."
Their all proved to be more than anyone could have imagined.
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.