10/30/08 12:59 AM EST
It's only the beginning for Rays
Despite sting of Series loss, AL champs here to stay
The World Series ended in disappointment for the Rays, but their 2008 season brought from the rest of the baseball world amazement at first, and later admiration.
Soaring after 10 straight losing seasons, the Rays made a one-year, 31-game improvement from 2007 to 97 victories this season. That meant an American League East title. Then came the pennant-winning victory over the defending World Series-champion Boston Red Sox in the AL Championship Series.
"Remarkable," was the one word that kept arising in manager Joe Maddon's summation of the season on Wednesday night. That adjective was very close to the mark, risking only the possibility of understatement.
The Rays lost the Philadelphia Phillies, 4-3, on Wednesday night, thus losing the Series, 4-1. This was far from a dismal performance by the Rays. Only one of the contests, Game 4, was a one-sided Philadelphia victory.
The Rays were largely held in check by a Phillies staff that featured Cole Hamels, the MVP of the World Series and the NLCS and the best pitcher of this postseason, and closer Brad Lidge, who was 48-of-48 in save opportunities this year. The Rays hit just .212 as a team and scored only 15 runs in the Series.
This obviously wasn't the World Series performance that they wanted, but the larger perspective of the Rays' season -- and their future -- should not be lost.
This is a team that is tremendously talented and still young. No postseason starting pitcher was older than 26. Rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, 23, will be an impact player for years to come. Center fielder B.J. Upton, 24, is one of the most talented players in the game. The list goes on, but the Tampa Bay organization is now sound and diligent in its scouting and developmental approach and its field manager, Maddon, has established himself as one of the brightest, most incisive minds in baseball.
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On Wednesday night, even after a difficult defeat in a Game 5 that had been suspended, then postponed and finally resumed after a 46-hour delay, Maddon already had a grasp on the proper perspective for his team's work.
"This has been a remarkable year for us on so many different levels, to get to this point," the manager said. "Very few people in this country or throughout the baseball world would have even guessed that we could get here.
"I'm very proud of our guys as a group. Really a truly remarkable job. We made a powerful statement. It's just the beginning. I view it as just the beginning. We go to Spring Training next year, with all this momentum built up from this season, validating all the concepts that we had put out there, and in order to sell the program. I'm not just talking about the Major Leagues, I'm also talking about the Minor side of the program, also, becomes somewhat easier.
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"So I'm really looking forward to that challenge, also. I'm so proud of our guys' effort level. I talked about nine equaling eight in the beginning of the year and it certainly did. Again, I think we validated and created the Ray way of playing baseball. I'm very proud of that, and we have to make it better."
Speaking to his team after Game 5, Maddon said he told his players that he was proud of their growth, not only as players.
"I just wanted them to know, beyond all of the stuff that happened on the baseball field, I am most proud of their growth as people," Maddon said. "I really loved the way they handled this entire moment. You look at our guys, really young, and I've read this is one time I have been reading the newspapers and watching TV, and I really liked the way our guys handled themselves. I thought we presented ourselves really well. And I think all this country now knows who we are, as well as the world, the baseball world."
In this view, the World Series experience, painful as the defeat was, becomes a part of the Rays' growth process. What did the Rays gain here?
"Experience," Maddon said. "Just the fact that a mind once stretched has a difficult time going back to its original form. I've always liked that. Our minds have been stretched. Everything about us has been stretched. I don't think our guys are ever going to be satisfied going home in October again.
"So this whole experience has permitted us to grow. Like I said, and being around the last couple of years if you had been there to follow us closely and see what the culture was like two years ago and what it's like now, the word is remarkable, to be able to come that far that quickly. So for me, for us, I believe this firmly, our guys are not going to be satisfied without playing in October from now on. And that's a good thing. And that's all because of this group of people this year."
This October did not end happily for the Rays. But after 10 years of defeat, reaching the Fall Classic was remarkable and more for this team. It is no reach at all to suggest that this will be merely the first of many Octobers in which the remarkable Tampa Bay Rays will be substantial factors.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.