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09/21/08 11:51 PM ET

Worst to first: Rays pursuing history

Tampa Bay's journey may rank atop the most impressive leaps

A year ago, as in every prior September, Tropicana Field had the feel of a flea market at sundown. Boxes were being packed, lockers cleaned out, trucks backed up, customers thinning out.

Last Sept. 4, a "crowd" of 9,112 watched the Tampa Bay Devil Rays lose to Baltimore, 8-4, and fall 27 games behind first with loss No. 82 that ensured an imperfect 10 -- 10 consecutive losing seasons, most of them spent in the American League East cellar.

Monday night, the joint was jumping, with 29,772 in the house to see if the Rays could bedevil and hold off Boston.

It didn't happen, as the Red Sox muscled up on Scott Kazmir for a 13-5 win, leaving the teams in a virtual tie for first place. But Kazmir helped the Rays clinch their first playoff berth in his next start, and the Rays entered Wednesday's action needing only a win against the Tigers or a Red Sox loss to clinch first place in the AL East.

Since their 1998 birth and through this April 27 -- when they first surfaced atop the division -- the Rays had spent 1,392 days in last place and 19 days in first place.

So Tampa Bay's burst from worst-to-first remains very much alive.

The Rays' prior "visits" to the top had all been made during the first few formative days of seasons. But as they began to demonstrate staying power this time around, the Rays became aware of a strange phenomenon as they bounced from series to series.

During games, opposing teams tried to take them out. But before and after, opposing players discreetly applauded and encouraged them, wishing them well.

Not too difficult to understand where that came from: "If you, why not us?"

The Tampa Bay Rays had become the latest beacon for the game's downtrodden. Like a high-pitched whistle audible only to junkyard dogs, their message was clearly heard by baseball mongrels. They spoke to the Reds, to the Pirates, to the Royals -- to all the teams that have been down for so long, hope had become just another four-letter word.

We've heard that sermon being delivered before, with increasing frequency in a sport of shrinking divisions and player mobility.

The Rays would be baseball's ninth worst-to-first chameleons, every one of them since 1991. Here's yet another motivation for closing the deal: Five of the precedents, hardly wilting in the ensuing postseason heat, wound up in the World Series.

(That count, incidentally, doesn't even include two other National League teams that followed-up last-place finishes with postseason berths, but only as Wild Cards: the 1997 Cubs and the 2007 Rockies.)

Worst-to-first is an inspiring trend because, notwithstanding the quick-fix venue of free agency, it demonstrates that some teams' hunger can go even deeper than others' pockets.

Tampa Bay's rise, of course, might go down as the most impressive of all because it would mean the Rays leapfrogged two of the game's Goliaths, the Red Sox and the Yankees.

"It's been an amazing thing," said starting pitcher James Shields. "Almost like a Cinderella story."

Almost? What's missing, the horse-drawn pumpkin?

Despite the Rays' profound about-face, the reasons behind it are blatantly simple: They upgraded a bullpen that in 2007 had coughed up 52 games in which Tampa Bay led, and their confidence fed on some significant early-season wins.

Tampa Bay's collective bullpen ERA of 6.16 last season was the game's highest since the '50s. Entering Monday night's game, the Rays' 3.48 bullpen ERA was the fifth best in the AL.

First to Worst
What goes up, must also sometimes come down. Worst-to-first clubs are swathed in glory, but in the course of baseball history there have also been some first-to-worst goats.
Games Ahead
Games Behind
Left-hander Trever Miller, converted starter J.P. Howell and late-season acquisition Chad Bradford have been big -- so the face-lift involved far more than just closer Troy Percival.

However, the mere symbolism of free agent Percival's choice to sign with Tampa Bay was huge, an explicit vote for the club's future. This was a recently retired veteran not interested in just hanging on, someone who had finished last with the Angels in 1999, three years before they won the World Series, and was part of the Tigers' stepping-stone from 119 losses in 2003 to the World Series in 2006.

So it meant a lot when Percival said in Spring Training, "The talent level is here. I got abused [in 2005] when I signed with Detroit ... but I went through that roster, and that team was really talented. I did the same thing here. What I liked was that there were young, talented starting pitchers here. And young, talented players."

Those words meant almost as much as a slew of early-season statements at home against some of the AL's elite -- an April 25-27 sweep of Boston, a May 9-11 sweep of the Angels, three straight wins over the White Sox from May 30 to June 1.

"Somewhere along the way we learned how to win," Shields concurred. "I think those sweeps we had early in the season, those were first-place teams 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."

Teams began taking such fantastic voyages, not surprisingly, when the distance to cover from the bottom to the top shrank. In the old eight- and 10-team league alignments, the extremes were too far apart to cover in one great leap of faith.

Not even the 1969 New York Mets, the first example of "overyear" sensation of which people think, did it. Although a textbook model of instant rise from pathos to a World Series championship, the Mets had actually escaped the National League cellar in 1968.

Not by much, finishing in ninth place only a game ahead of the Houston Astros, but enough to not qualify as worst-to-first. (Besides, the Mets' flowering coincided with the first season of divisional play, giving them "only" a six-team East Division to climb.)

Similarly, neither does history's biggest leap in the standings qualify. The 1899 Brooklyn Dodgers (or, as they were known at the time, the Superbas) won the NL pennant a season after finishing 10th. But, alas, in those days the NL was a 12-team league. So Brooklyn was only very-bad-to-first.

Then, there were a couple of ne'er do worst-to-firsts who deserve mention: The 1966 Red Sox, the precursors of the '67 Impossible Dreamers, finished a half-game out of the cellar ahead of the Yankees, who played three fewer games due to cancellations; the 1986 Dodgers took the NL West flag a year after also missing the basement by a half-game over the Braves, who had one postponement.

Enter divisions -- through 1993 two in each league, then the ranks further thinned out by the addition of Centrals.

The dream, and the brass ring, became more accessible for the oppressed.

The Rays, in fact, are trying to become the third team in the last two seasons -- and the sixth of the tri-division era -- to complete the trip.

The worst-to-first honor roll:

1990-91 Twins
1990: 74-88, 29 games behind A's
1991: 95-67, 8 games ahead of White Sox
Upshot: +21
Offshoot: Beat Blue Jays in ALCS, beat Braves in the World Series.

1990-91 Braves
1990: 65-97; 26 games behind Reds
1991: 94-68, 1 game ahead of Dodgers
Upshot: +29
Offshoot: Beat Pirates in NLCS, lost to Twins in World Series.

1992-93 Phillies
1992: 70-92, 26 games behind Pirates
1993: 97-65, 3 games ahead of Expos
Upshot: +27
Offshoot: Beat Braves in NLCS, lost to Blue Jays in World Series.

1996-97 Giants
1996: 68-94, 23 games behind Padres
1997: 90-72, 2 games ahead of Dodgers
Upshot: +12
Offshoot: Lost to Marlins in NLDS.

1997-98 Padres
1997: 76-86, 14 games behind Giants
1998: 98-64, 9.5 games ahead of Giants
Upshot: +22
Offshoot: Beat Astros in the NLDS, beat Braves in the ALCS, lost to Yankees in World Series.

1998-99 D-backs
1998: 65-97, 33 games behind Padres
1999: 100-62, 14 games ahead of Giants
Upshot: +35
Offshoot: Lost to Mets on NLDS.

2006-07 Cubs
2006: 66-96, 17.5 games behind Cardinals
2007: 85-77, 2 games ahead of Brewers
Upshot: +19
Offshoot: Lost to D-backs in NLDS.

2006-07 D-backs
2006: 76-86, 12 games behind Padres
2007: 90-72, 0.5 ahead of Rockies
Upshot: +14
Offshoot: Beat Cubs in NLDS, lost to Rockies in NLCS.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.