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The ultimate underdog: Rays give everyone reason to hope

The best part of watching a sports miracle, for me anyway, is that precise moment when everyone realizes, "Hey, this thing really could happen." During the last Super Bowl, that moment hit America precisely .03 seconds after Giants quarterback Eli Manning tore away from the army of the living dead, heaved the football downfield and David Tyree somehow clamped it against his helmet.

That moment happened when Buster Douglas got up off the canvas and, even in his momentary fog after the knockdown, somehow still looked fresher and angrier and more dangerous than the supposedly invincible Mike Tyson across the ring.

That moment happened when Kirk Gibson connected with one arm, a tennis backhand really, and the ball shot to right-field bleachers, and a Dodgers team that did not have a single guy hit more than 25 homers or drive in 85 RBIs all year was on its way to the World Series.

That moment is happening right now with the Tampa Bay Rays. They have the best record in the American League. They have a solid four-game lead over the world champion Red Sox and a Secretariat-like 11-length cushion over the spiraling New York Yankees. CoolStandings -- the awesome Web site that simulates the remainder of the season one million times -- now calculates that the Rays have a 99.3 percent chance to make the playoffs.

This is the good time, the time when everyone understands that the worst team last year, the worst team the year before that, the one team everyone forgets when trying to remember all 30 Major League baseball teams, the team that just a few months ago dropped the word "Devil" from their name, is going to play ball in October.*

*I find it impossible to believe, in this era when punters point to the heavens after dropping one inside the 20 and boxers thank God for giving them the strength to cave in noses, that people have not made a bigger deal out of the fact that the Devil Rays only started to win games AFTER they removed the Prince of Darkness from their jerseys. True, "Devil Ray" supposedly refers only to a type of fish, but do we really think it's a coincidence that as soon they exorcized the name, bam, the wins started rolling in?

It's a funny thing: I'm so rarely right about predictions. But about a month before the baseball season began, I was sitting in a diner in Surprise, Ariz., looking over the Rays roster. And, the more I looked, the more I felt like: "Man, the Rays are going to be good." On paper, it seemed self-evident. Look at the pitching: The Rays had a potential ace in Scott Kazmir, a potentially fabulous No. 2 in James Shields, a promising third guy in Matt Garza and the No. 1 pick in the draft, David Price, on the way. Look at the hitting: The Rays had masher Carlos Pena, the best hitter in the minor leagues, Evan Longoria, two-time all-star and speedster Carl Crawford and the unlimited power and speed talents of B.J. Upton. That sure looked like a good team to me.

But what you think over a tuna melt in a retirement community is not necessarily reality. When I talked to scouts and baseball analysts, they conceded the individual points -- yes Kazmir can be great, yes Longoria should hit, yes Upton has a high ceiling (you know how scouts talk) -- but in the larger picture, hey, it was still Tampa Bay, and that meant losing. Maybe it was a failure of imagination. Maybe it was just the crushing force of inevitability -- the Rays had been around for 10 years and had lost more than 90 games every year. Maybe it was the stubborn notion that no team could ever break the Yankees-Red Sox monopoly.

Probably it was human nature, too. In sports -- in life -- you just don't expect things to change much.

Even when the Rays started off hot -- when they moved into first place for the first time on May 13 after an 11-inning victory over the Yankees -- the feeling seemed to be that it was cute but it was not realistic. They moved back into first on June 29 while winning seven in a row, but again the story seemed fleeting -- Tampa lost seven straight heading into the All-Star game. Then in August, Longoria got hurt, Crawford got hurt, closer Troy Percival got hurt, and one more time everyone said, "Well, that was nice while it lasted, but it's all over now baby blue."

Only, the story keeps on going. Why? Well, the magic begins with Tropicana Field, which is ironic because there are few less-magical places than Tropicana Field. When I took my family there earlier this year, my wife said Tropicana looks like the sort of cooking pot they sell on late-night television infomercials, the sort that cook using steam or the power of the sun or the energy of Dick Vitale or whatever.

But the Rays are just about invincible in the baseball wok. They are now 52-20 at home. They hit better there, but the big key is pitching. The whole staff has a 3.11 ERA in Tropicana and holds opposing batters to a .226 batting average. The Trop has long been a pretty good pitcher's park, but now it's like a time machine transporting hitters back to 1968.

Look at these home pitching numbers: Scott Kazmir, 6-1, 2.30 ERA. James Shields, 9-2, 2.34 ERA. Matt Garza, 7-2, 2.47 ERA. Dan Wheeler, 3-2, 7 saves, 1.86 ERA.

The other side of the story is that the Rays have a 32-32 record on the road. It might not seem like it, but that's quite good, better than the Red Sox, a lot better than Chicago or Minnesota in the American League Central.

The Rays are a very difficult team to play because they bring something every day. Their lineup is not overpowering -- the Rays are ninth in the league in runs scored -- but they walk a lot (second in the AL), and they play aggressively (they lead the league in stolen bases and are third in triples) and they have enough power to change the dynamic of the game (fifth in homers -- Pena has 27, Longoria 22). They have only been shut out five times this year.

The Rays also have five young starters -- all 26 and under, all with different styles -- and four of them have sub-4.00 ERAs. The bullpen has been devastating, especially with the emergence of the unfortunately named Grant Balfour* (1.44 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 43 2/3 innings) and J.P. Howell (6-0 , 2.66 ERA).

*I've long wondered what is the worst name for a pitcher, and "Grant Bal(l)four" is a candidate -- hard to imagine a much more troubling pitcher name unless it would be "Allow Dinger." Then again, I think Kevin Slowey is up there. It's hard to go to the bullpen and bring in a guy named "David Riske." There's always Homer Bailey.

There are some other reasons for the Rays success. They are 26-15 in one-run games, which is the best in the league and probably involves some luck. They have obliterated the bottom two teams in each division -- their record against those six teams is 40-16. They signed Eric Hinske (most thought he was washed up) to a minor-league deal and he's been good in part-time duty. And so on.

In the end, though, it's not much fun picking apart a magic trick. The Rays are a fresh story, and they are for real. I notice that when I go to an NCAA tournament mismatch game -- a three-seed against a 14-seed or whatever -- the fans start cheering for the favorite out of habit. If the little guy can keep the game close for a while, the fans will start to get behind them. If they can keep it close longer, the fans will embrace them. And if the underdog can keep it close until the end, they will have the hearts and minds of the masses.

"Why is that?" I asked Homer Drew, who was coach of Valparaiso, one of the all-time underdogs. "Because we have to give them a reason to hope," he said.

The Rays have given everyone reason to hope. This is when it gets fun.

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