BOSTON -- It is getting to the point now, after a decade of ineptitude and a single season destined for a Disney screenplay, that the Tampa Bay Rays can almost taste it. They can allow themselves to really think about it now, if only briefly, and to maybe even let it creep into their dreams.
The suddenly studly Rays are one win from the World Series. No matter how many experts might have seen the possibility, no matter how many claimed to have seen the Rays on the rise, a Tampa Bay World Series is more than a mere possibility now. It is a near reality, as close of a cinch in baseball as it gets. After another convincing blowout of the defending World Series champion Red Sox in the American League Championship Series on Tuesday -- this one a 13-4 (Recap | Box Score) shellacking at Fenway Park in Game 4 -- the Rays are all but there.
"There's nothing wrong," first baseman Carlos Pena said after the win gave the Rays a 3-1 advantage in the best-of-seven ALCS, "with actually envisioning ourselves in the World Series."
The Rays, young but smart, are wise enough to realize that they need one more win. They're not getting ahead of themselves. Pena won't allow it. Their mind-controlling manager, Joe Maddon, wouldn't stand for it. These guys are not so bold to think that the Red Sox -- 7-1 in their last eight postseason elimination games, the Rays are quick to point out -- won't go down without a scrap.
But after 31 runs in the past three games, after shutting down the Boston lineup for most of the series, after beating aces Josh Beckett and Jon Lester and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who can blame the Rays for a little show of confidence? This ALCS has become a full-bore, sometimes boring rout. Tampa Bay, when you take into account two key plays in a 2-0 loss in Game 1, is a check-swing opposite-field double and a sinking liner that should have been caught away from a sweep. And now, after an off day on Wednesday, the Rays have three chances to close this thing out, the final two -- if they need them -- back home in friendly, frenzied Tampa Bay.
Improbable? Absolutely, considering where this team has been. But improbable, when you line up these two teams side by side? No. Not in the least. The Rays have owned the Red Sox so far in this series. It hasn't been close.
Tuesday, the Rays pounced on Wakefield in the first inning when Pena hit the right-hander's 11th pitch of the game -- a knuckleball -- over Fenway's Green Monster for a two-run homer. Two pitches later, rookie third baseman Evan Longoria crushed another Wakefield knuckler for a solo shot, his third-straight game with a home run and his fifth homer of the postseason.
In the third, Wakefield offered up another sacrificial knuckleball to super utilityman Willy Aybar, who rode that one out of the park for a two-run homer that put the Rays up 5-0. "In a night that was filled with a lot of things that didn't go right," Boston manager Terry Francona said, "that was a huge turn in the game for us."
Wakefield was gone a batter later, after only 44 pitches, and the rest of the game was barely an afterthought. By the time the game crept into the seventh-inning stretch, the words, "I don't care if I never get back," took on a strange new meaning to the listless crowd at Fenway Park. Take Me Out to the Ball Game sounded more funereal than fun.
The Rays continued to pour on the hits and the runs, as they have since Game 2, in a stunning turn for a team that was ninth in the AL in runs scored per game. Tampa Bay ended up with 14 hits, giving the Rays 39 over the past three games. Left fielder Carl Crawford, thought lost for the season when he tore a sheath around a tendon in his finger, chipped in five hits and two RBIs. Aybar, who has subbed so successfully all over the field for the Rays this season, drove in five runs.
And the Rays' pitching, for the third straight night, stymied the Red Sox offense despite Francona's lineup shuffling. Starter Andy Sonnanstine held the Sox to six hits and three earned runs over 7 1/3 innings. Boston ended up with seven hits. Nobody had more than one, though designated hitter David Ortiz got his first of the series, a leadoff triple in the seventh inning. He is hitting .071 in the ALCS.
Adding to the Rays' almost giddy self-confidence: Tuesday was their second straight postseason win in Fenway, and their fourth overall, after losing their first seven games in Boston this season. Game 5 is scheduled for Thursday in Boston.
"I don't want to believe it yet," Longoria said about being on the brink of a World Series. "It's a win, and I've seen us lose seven in a row. We'll look to Thursday and try to win one."
Thursday won't be easy. The Rays will face Daisuke Matsuzaka, who shut them out in Game 1. And, of course, this is not just any team the Rays are trying to close out. These are the Sox. Of the 15 teams that have trailed in the ALCS three games to one, four have come back to win the series. Three of those were Red Sox teams.
Recently, the Sox were down 3-0 to the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and won. Last year, they were down 3-1 to the Indians and won. In '86, they came back against the Angels.
True, they folded in Game 3 of the '05 division series, to the White Sox, the last time they faced an elimination game and were eliminated. It's still a pretty good record under pressure. "I hope it's relevant," Francona said.
These Red Sox, though, are vastly different than the team that came back last year, and the Rays are vastly different than the team that spent the first 10 seasons of its existence doing nothing but losing. These Rays, the AL East champs, have been for real all season long. And they may be playing their best ball ever. Right now, right here.
"Everyone understands how special this moment is," a wide-eyed Pena told a pressing pack of reporters in the Rays' clubhouse past midnight on Tuesday. "Everyone on this ball club understands the power of staying in the moment."
The Rays' long-awaited moment, the one few ever expected would arrive, is finally at hand.