So, who are these guys, these amazing Rays?
During the first 10 years of their moribund existence, they played October baseball only when the regular season’s final weekend happened to leak into the next page on the calendar.
They were nothing if not consistent. They finished dead last nine years out of 10. That was also the only year they managed to win 70 games, a modest high-water mark indeed. Every year but one the Rays finished at least 28 games out of first.
In short, nothing in their sordid history prepared the Rays for a run into the World Series. Nor were serious students of the game prepared.
When the last weekend of April rolled around, the Rays raised eyebrows by sweeping Boston in a three-game series at Tropicana Field. They finished the month a mere game behind the Red Sox.
The first death knell sounded the next weekend, as the Sox swept the Rays in Boston. Surprisingly, the Rays remained a nice story, turning in a 19-10 mark for the month and taking a one game lead over Boston.
June witnessed another Red Sox sweep at Fenway Park, but by month’s end the Rays still held a game and a half lead. And they were in the process of sweeping the Sox again at Tropicana Field.
The Rays died a week later, staggering into the All-Star break with seven straight losses. At least they had a nice little run.
But, ho! Here they came after the break, winning three out of four series, and splitting the fourth. That set up a record-breaking August in which the Rays compiled a 21-7 record and fattened their lead to 5.5 games.
Then the free-fall began. In the first week of September, the Sox picked up five games, and won the opener of a crucial series at Fenway. Surely now the Rays were done. But the Rays bounced back to win the last two games, administering excruciating losses to the veteran Sox. A week later they did it again.
With the Sox on their heels, the Rays held on, winning six of their final 10 games to win the division by two games. They finished with 97 wins, a franchise record. By 27 wins.
Ah, but now, with the pressure of the playoffs, the Rays would finally crack, no?
No, indeed. They knocked out the White Sox in four games.
That left it up to the defending champions to end the Rays amazing run. That’s what the smart money thought.
Especially when Daisuke Matsuzaka shut down the Rays in a Game One Red Sox win. Especially when the Red Sox wiped out a 5-0 deficit to take a 6-5 lead in Game Two.
Against all odds, the Rays came back and won that game, and then won the first two in Boston to take a 3-1 series lead. But down 3-1 is Boston’s time, and the Sox proved it. They roared back from seven runs down with only seven outs left to win, 8-7.
Then they went back to Tampa and won Game Six.
Surely, the Rays were done now. Especially when Dustin Pedroia homered in the first inning to give the Sox the lead.
Especially when Jon Lester retired the first nine Rays in order.
“It’s unbelievable,” centerfielder B.J. Upton told the Associated Press. “We battled a lot of adversity this year. We stuck together as a team.”
“All year long we responded when people counted us out,” executive vice-president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told mlb.com. “It seems like we want that chip on our shoulder.”
“I felt nervous until the end,” principal owner Stuart Steinberg told mlb.com. “Then we won. Wow. I wasn’t even sure how to act. … From last place, and a history of last place, to … the World Series. It’s a testament to the players, the coaches and the entire organization.”
Primarily, it’s a testament to manager Joe Maddon. On the first day of spring training, Maddon told his team that they had the talent to be winners.
“We kind of looked at each other like, ‘What’s this guy talking about?’” pitcher James Shields told mlb.com. “You’ve got to believe in yourselves before anybody else does.”
“There’s probably only one person in this locker room that really thought we could do it, and that’s Joe Maddon,” reliever David Price told mlb.com.
“Let’s go back to the first day of spring training,” Maddon told mlb.com. “If I had told you guys we were going to the World Series, all of you would have laughed. Absolutely, a good belly laugh.”
Cliff Floyd, one of the Rays few veterans, gave mlb.com the summation. “Once we got hold of this thing and started to believe, we became a family that you couldn’t defeat. And here we are. It’s amazing what can happen when you put a bunch of athletes on the field and start to believe.”
So that’s who these guys are. A bunch of believers.
When not practicing his avocation, Denton Ashway practices his vocation with the law firm of Ashway and Haldi in Cumming.