© 2008 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

10/20/08 4:21 AM EST

For Maddon, 9=2 after big W in Game 7

Skipper's trust in players culminates in club's first Fall Classic berth

ST. PETERSBURG -- The walls were draped in a toxic-smelling shield of fresh latex, as veterans, rookies and hangers-on alike wielded bottles of bubbly and took aim at everything in sight. If you were dry, you weren't trying hard enough.

It is a scene that plays out every October in ballparks throughout the big leagues, the giddy joy of grown men achieving their dreams, but it was never supposed to happen in the basement at Tropicana Field. At least, not in the home clubhouse, not so soon.

Complete Coverage

It took the optimistic influence of a self-admitted "dreamer" to help make it so, and as the sunshine-happy Rays carried on a party that would last into the early-morning hours, the question had to be asked: How could manager Joe Maddon possibly have known?

"Believe me," Maddon said, his silver hair dripping with the golden sparkle of barley and hops, dripping into the lenses of his thick black-framed glasses. "When it comes down to these moments, it's about your intuitive nature. You can be taught, you can learn from other people, but when it comes down to it, it's all based on intuition."

Maddon stood a few feet from the office doorway, where his prized collection of wine bottles was guarded from the barrage taking place, carrying on with reporters in the glass-all-the-way-full style all on his own.

The well-read 54-year-old has won over the St. Petersburg area, a man as comfortable talking about Motown and bay biking as he is about the machinations of his lineup -- which, it should be noted, are dutifully filled out to his eclectic musical tastes.

On Sunday, the lineup card that won the American League pennant came with an accompaniment of Bruce Springsteen; Maddon's other activities kicked off with the Rolling Stones and the Four Tops.

His players may not share the same tastes or interests, but they are undoubtedly on board with Maddon's program, unwilling to leave until four more victories are achieved.

"When you deal with these people on a daily basis, you really understand their personalities, where they've come from, where they're at today," Maddon said. "I'm so proud of the group in general, the fact that we have grown so much in such a short period of time. I'm really proud of the way they've handled themselves to this entire moment."

You thought 9=8 was something? Wait until you see how Maddon rationalizes 9=2.

"When he brought out this 9=8 thing, we kind of all looked at each other like, 'What's this guy talking about?'" James Shields said. "And it made sense in the end. We believed in it, and we believed in ourselves. I think that's kind of what the point of all his slogans talk about; you've got to believe in yourselves before anybody else does."

As the final outs ticked off for the Rays -- forget seven, this was down to three, two, one -- Maddon thought most about his father, also named Joe. The same Hazleton, Pa.-bred family man who lectured his son to lug a different bat during his playing days is a frequent contributor to Maddon's managerial life, though he holds his tongue. His son is doing just fine on his own.

"Let's go back to the first day of Spring Training. If I had told you guys we were going to be one game away from going to the World Series, all of you would have laughed. Absolutely, a good belly laugh.
-- Manager Joe Maddon, on Rays' success

"I almost brought his hat out into the dugout, but I didn't, because it was an Angels hat," Maddon said. "He's just so proud right now."

On their way to the field each day, the Rays had to pass four signs inside the Rays' clubhouse, each spelled out in English, Spanish, Japanese and Korean: "Attitude is a decision."

Losing had been entrenched as a way of the franchise, destined to live as an also-ran in a highly competitive AL East. Maddon may have had his head in the clouds thinking of a contending Rays club, but he didn't have much company at the outset.

"There's probably one person in this locker room that really thought we could do it, and that's Joe Maddon," said David Price. "You can't think of last year and go over 100 wins right now. Everybody just slowly bought into the one goal this entire team has."

"Once we got a hold of this thing and started to believe," Cliff Floyd said, "we became a family that you couldn't defeat. And here we are."

So as he sat at a podium before Sunday's Game 7, Maddon couldn't help but answer a query by taking his audience on a flashback tour to musty Progress Energy Park down by the marina in St. Petersburg, remarking on how far his club had come.

"Let's go back to the first day of Spring Training," Maddon said. "If I had told you guys we were going to be one game away from going to the World Series, all of you would have laughed. Absolutely, a good belly laugh.

"I'm very proud of where our group is at today, and I could understand why you would have belly-laughed back then. But nobody is belly laughing right now. And I could not be more proud of this group, and I have a strong conviction and belief that we're going to get it done tonight."

Perhaps the Red Sox should have had all the momentum going into Game 7, and when Dustin Pedroia cracked a first-inning home run off AL Championship Series MVP Matt Garza, they probably did. But momentum is only as good as the starting pitcher.

While Boston's Jon Lester was strong, Garza was very, very good, leading Maddon into the eighth inning where he was sent out with a 116 pitch count before leaving two tosses later.

Maddon's maneuvers to follow unwittingly tied an LCS record when he used five pitchers -- Garza, Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell, Chad Bradford and Price -- to navigate the eighth inning and keep a 3-1 lead intact.

The final four outs were recorded by a rookie, Price, who logged a postseason save in Game 7 of a do-or-die series before he'd even had the opportunity to try his stuff out in that situation during the regular season.

"Who would do that? Only Joe," Howell said. "That's what happens when you make moves and you trust yourself. Tonight, Joe did a great job again."

"It just seemed to be the right vibe entirely," Maddon said. "You get to those moments. I've been there in the past, and you can feel it, you can taste it, you know it and it was all there. All that stuff was present."

Garza, who secured his second win of the ALCS when Price got Jed Lowrie to ground into a game-ending forceout, could only shake his head and grin.

"He's done it all year -- he's made the right moves, and we're going to the World Series," Garza said.

Howell was asked if, as a summoned arm out of the bullpen, he had tried to think along with Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey on the late-game maneuvers.

"I stopped about Week 2," Howell said. "I started thinking too much. I've never figured him out, and I still don't. But I love him, man. He's the perfect manager for me."

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