March 13, 2010

If you think they'll fold, think again

— BOSTON — They don't shake, rattle or fall down. They are the best story in baseball this year, even if Red Sox fans don't want to hear it.

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Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Matt Garza, right, congratulates catcher Dioner Navarro after defeating the Boston Red Sox 9-1 in Game 3 of the American League baseball championship series in Boston, Monday, Oct. 13, 2008. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

AP

click image to enlarge

Tampa Bay Rays' Rocco Baldelli, right, is congratulated by his teammates Fernando Perez (38) and Dioner Navarro (30) after his three run home run in the eighth inning in Game 3 of the American League baseball championship series in Boston, Monday, Oct. 13, 2008. Perez and Navarro scored on the hit. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

AP

The Tampa Bay Rays got rid of the Devil in their nickname and never did have to look over their shoulders at black cats or curses. Just a past of ineptitude that gets mentioned only for the sake of perspective. Yesterday's joke is today's very real contender for baseball's top prize.

The Rays don't have to win another game in the postseason. They've got your attention.

Who waltzes into Fenway Park in October, hits four home runs, including two off Boston's best pitcher, and acts like they've done this before? When of course, they haven't.

Monday night, after beating the Red Sox 9-1, they didn't jump and holler with the giddiness of kids. They didn't act like fools.

''This is very heady stuff,'' said Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon, who tried his best to look terribly dour. B.J. Upton hit a three-run homer off Jon Lester, the best October pitcher the Sox have, and Evan Longoria followed with another homer.

''They come equipped with all the bells and whistles,'' Maddon said. ''They feel like they belong here, and that's a big reason why they've been able to perform with calm and permit everybody to see how good they are.

''There's some athletes that just don't arrive at that mental point as quick, but they have.''

You watched the Chicago Cubs with been-there, done-that manager Lou Piniella boot the baseball and come unglued against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

You saw the fumbling Los Angeles Angels look at each other and point fingers. The Red Sox won't soon forget the I-got-it, I-got-it, no, you-take-it pop fly that allowed three runs to score in their division series game.

Tampa Bay's kids haven't done that. Or at least not enough to make a difference. You keep waiting for them to look past the bright lights, see that more of America is watching and get stage fright. Miss their cues and forget their lines.

There's a saying the rookies and the inexperienced among us don't know what they don't know. And some say that in 2004, the so-called idiocy in the Red Sox clubhouse shielded them from the unrelenting pressure of the toughest sports fans in the country.

Rays fans are only now jumping on the bandwagon. They just discovered not all balls have to be pointed. Pressure is when your team isn't ranked in college football's top 10.

Dustin Pedroia doubled in the first inning with one out and didn't score. Jason Bay singled with one out in the second and Mark Kotsay followed with a double, Bay stopping at third. There was one out. The crowd was howling.

The Red Sox didn't score.

On the mound, Rays starter Matt Garza checked his pulse.

''I told myself, 'let them keep knocking on that door, keep knocking on that wall, but they ain't coming home. I'm not going to give in.'

''I took it pitch by pitch, hitter by hitter.''

Garza was traded from the Minnesota Twins, a team that knocks on the door to the playoffs year after year. He wasn't sure what he'd find when he first walked into the Rays' clubhouse. He knew their history.

He learned that history was about to change.

''We want to win now,'' he said. ''We don't want to be the team that waits for later.

''After June and we were sitting in first place, we were like, 'this thing works, let's keep winning it out.'''

The Rays aren't the anointed ones. Monday's game was only the third in a best-of-seven American League Championship Series, and the Red Sox have won one. Tampa Bay has to go through the champs.

You try telling them they can't.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

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