Feat accompli? Rays trying to complete task
ST. PETERSBURG -- Numbers tell the story about these amazing Tampa Bay Rays, but for their manager, that's not what it's all about.
Joe Maddon said it's eerie, almost like a supernatural spell has engulfed his band of overachievers. He says you can see it and feel it in the Rays' midst. It's difficult to define.
Years from now, baseball historians are going to look back at 2011 and talk about how the financially strapped Rays made an incredible September run to open a door to the coveted postseason.
They'll bring up that on Sept. 2, these Cinderellas hadn't even tried on their golden slippers. They were staring at a seemingly insurmountable nine games separating them from the aristocratic Boston Red Sox and the American League Wild Card.
And then 24 days later, on Sept. 26 to be exact, it was a stirring 5-2 conquest of mighty New York and another devastating Red Sox setback that pulled the two teams dead even.
Each with just two games to play.
A giddy James Shields, after cooling the Yankees for his 16th victory, said this is what baseball is all about -- an understatement.
Maddon said there was a time "when you could feel it. It goes beyond numbers and all that stuff. We're talking about human beings."
Nothing demonstrates what Maddon tries to explain more than Desmond Jennings' running, diving catch of Derek Jeter's screaming liner to left field leading off the fifth inning -- when the Rays were clinging to a 4-2 lead.
Jennings, heavily recruited by the University of Alabama as a receiver, ran an estimated 40 yards before diving to pull in the ball.
"It's one of the best I've seen," said Maddon. "His football training came in very well."
As the game was getting under way, angry skies outside Tropicana Field opened, with heavy rain pelting the Teflon-covered roof accompanied by booming claps of thunder.
It occurred to me that not even the dangerous weather outside could stop the Rays. Maddon believes it's difficult to define the momentum that has carried the Rays to their deadlock with Boston.
"When you're going good and playing well, you get to the point where you believe you can do something," he said. "In moments like this, you're able to do something even better than you normally do regardless of how good you are.
"Physically and mentally, I think we're able to do things even better without trying. I just try to stay out of the way and let them play. It's a joy to watch."
The Rays have obviously taken advantage of Boston's colossal collapse.
When financial limitations made it impossible for them to retain many of their premier players, such as outfielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Carlos Pena, not to mention virtually the entire bullpen, few thought the Rays would be able to defend their 2010 AL East title.
After the seventh-inning stretch, the message board in right field flashed the Orioles-Red Sox score -- at the time, Baltimore was leading, 6-2.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, "[The fans are] cheering for the scoreboard. That doesn't necessarily happen very often when you're at a ballpark. They see a score, and they either cheer or they don't say anything. I actually saw one of their players look at the scoreboard when the fans cheered tonight. That probably wouldn't happen on a normal day. They should be excited."
"Yes, I'm watching the scoreboard and getting updates," said Maddon. "It was wonderful to see the score."
It seemed there was a larger reaction from the Rays when the Orioles closed out their victory at Camden Yards than when reliever Kyle Farnsworth sealed the win for Shields.
"The guys were really into it," said Maddon. "I just sat at my desk. When David Price screamed, I knew it was final. Now, I really like our chances."
In Spring Training, the ever-optimistic Maddon kept saying the demise of the Rays is greatly overrated. He was right, but I don't think he or anyone else dreamed Boston would hit the skids like it has this September.
What has happened to the Red Sox reminds me of 1964, when the Phillies had a 6 1/2-game National League lead with 12 games to play. They proceeded to lose 10 in a row and blew the pennant, allowing St. Louis to storm from behind and go to the World Series.
After Monday's victory, the Rays are now in a position to determine their own fate. Even if the Rays win their next two games and Boston does the same in Baltimore, they will meet the Red Sox in a one-game tiebreaker Thursday.
"We don't worry about the Red Sox," said Maddon. "We have to come out and play our game every night. We have to worry about beating the Yankees the next two nights. We have to take care of our own business. If we take care of the seconds, the minutes, the hours and the days, [it'll] take care of themselves."
Even if the Rays are unable to pull this off -- they admittedly have the momentum -- what they have done to this point has already made this September memorable.
Girardi, whose team has already clinched the AL East title and home-field advantage, is between a rock and a hard place for the final three games.
"I think we're in a tough position," he said. "One of the real reasons is because we only have one day off. That makes it tougher. My first objective is to make sure our team is ready and healthy to go on Friday. That's what we have to do. It's a tough situation."
Girardi vowed not to make it easy for the Rays.
But as Maddon said, his players are performing better than even they believe they can.
Just two games to go, but the two most important of the year.
That's what baseball 2011 is all about.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.