BOSTON-As the improbable winners of the American League East, the Rays are making a run through their first-ever postseason that seems to have no end in sight. Many factors have gone into the Rays’ monumental leap from also-ran to playoff team in one season, and they’ve been chronicled quite frequently in recent weeks, but one of the biggest and perhaps most overlooked reasons that the Rays are two wins away from the World Series is that they have actually taken all of the losing that had defined their franchise until this season and used it to their advantage.
The Rays lost at least 91 games in each of their first 10 seasons, and that gave them plenty of high draft picks. More importantly, the Rays have had the scouting acumen to make the most of all those premium selections, and they now have four first-rounders on their post-season roster: left-hander David Price, third baseman Evan Longoria, center fielder B.J. Upton, and outfielder Rocco Baldelli. “Every year, you could see the talent level just getting better,” said left fielder Carl Crawford, the Rays’ second-round pick in 1999 who passed up a football scholarship from Nebraska and a basketball scholarship from UCLA to sign with Tampa Bay. “You obviously didn’t always see it at the major league level, but you could see the young kids they were bringing into the organization every year in spring training. Even through all the losing, it gave us hope that better days were coming. We just had too many big-time athletes for us not to get this thing turned around.”
The turnaround continued on Monday as the Rays tied a post-season record by hitting four home runs as they blitzed the Red Sox 9-1 in Game Three of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park, with Upton, Longoria, Baldelli, and Carlos Pena all connecting for the Rays to back right-hander Matt Garza‘s outstanding effort. Garza outpitched ballyhooed Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester by allowing only one run and six hits and three walks in six innings while striking out five, and after dethroning in the Red Sox as AL East champs with a 97-win regular season, the Rays now hold a 2-1 lead in the series, with Game Four set for tonight when Andy Sonnanstine will face Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
While the three-run homer by Baldelli was heartwarming after a season that began with his career in jeopardy from a mitochondrial disorder that had sapped much of his strength and energy, and while Pena’s shot was special because he had grown up in Boston and was a college star in the city at Northeastern, both blasts were mere window dressing in this game. It was Upton and Longoria who set the tone for the day by hitting their home runs in a four-run third inning that put the Rays ahead 5-0, silencing the Fenway crowd, and it has been Upton and Longoria who have set the pace for the Rays throughout the franchise’s first October. Upton, the multi-talented center fielder, has now hit five home runs in the Rays’ seven post-season games after hitting just nine in 145 regular-season games. Longoria, the third baseman with the sweet swing and innate ability to make hard contact seemingly every time he connects with a pitch, has gone deep four times in the postseason, a strong follow-up to a fine rookie season in which belted 27 home runs in 122 games.
No two teammates under the age of 25 have ever combined for nine home runs in the postseason before. The previous high was six, by the Mets‘ Darryl Strawberry and Lenny Dykstra in 1986, and by the looks of Game Three, the Rays’ pair of 24-year-olds are likely to add to the record before the month is over. The overall record of 14 in 2002 by the Giants‘ Rich Aurilia and Barry Bonds might not even be safe. At 24 years and two months, Upton is the youngest player to hit at least five home runs in one postseason; Albert Pujols was 24 years and nine months when he went deep five times for the 2004 Cardinals. Meanwhile, Longoria’s four home runs tie the post-season rookie record set by Miguel Cabrera for the 2003 Marlins.
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Upton said. “It’s not like I’m all of sudden trying to swing for the fences. I haven’t changed my approach, and it doesn’t look like Evan has changed his approach. We’re just swinging the bats well right now.” “That’s pretty cool,” Longoria said with a smile when told of the feat. “I don’t know if B.J. and I are necessarily having a competition with each other. We’re just focused on winning ballgames because it’s the postseason, and wins are truly the only thing that matters at this point of the season.”
That focus never seemed sharper than in Game Three, as the Rays faced Lester, the Red Sox’s ace now that right-hander Josh Beckett, the former Mr. October of the mound, is struggling in the postseason. Lester had gone 11-1 with a 2.49 ERA in 17 starts at Fenway during the regular season, holding hitters to a .240/.303/.361 line. He had also pitched 24
In the third frame, Lester threw a few cutters that did not cut, and Upton hit a three-run homer over the Green Monster and out of the ballpark before Longoria capped the inning by reaching the Monster seats above the left-field wall, with the ball landing in the hands of a fan wearing a Rays’ jersey. “Lester is definitely one of the better pitchers in the league, and when he throws that cutter 91-92 mph right up under your hands, it’s almost impossible to hit,” Longoria said. “However, he didn’t get his cutter inside enough to either B.J. or me. They caught a lot of the plate, and we were able to put good swings on them. Really, when you get down to it, hitting is about waiting for the pitcher to make a mistake, and then taking advantage of it when he does. Lester isn’t going to make too many mistakes, but we capitalized on them in a big way.”
Garza made some mistakes as well, but he got away with them. The Red Sox had a runner on base in each of his seven innings, but scored just one run as Jacoby Ellsbury hit a sacrifice fly off of J.P. Howell immediately after he relieved Garza with none out and runners on the corners. That got the Red Sox to 5-1, but Howell ended the threat by inducing Dustin Pedroia to ground into an inning-ending double play after the second baseman had reached base in each of his first three plate appearances with a double, a single, and a walk. “Garza was throwing his fastball at times by us, and that breaking ball at times that you had to respect,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “So that was a tough combination for us, one we couldn’t overcome.”
The Red Sox were 2-for-11 with runners on base, and hitless in four at-bats with runners in scoring position against Garza. “I told myself, let them keep knocking on that door, keep knocking on that wall, but they ain’t coming home,” Garza said. “I told myself that’s what I’m going to do. I had to make big pitches.” “Garza is the main reason we won that game, I really believe that,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “Him doing what he did permitted us to get into the flow of the game, get some runs, and then maintain. He did not permit them to come back. That to me is the storyline for the game, always. When you win games like this, it’s normally about your starting pitching.”
That may be true, but the alternate storyline was about the Rays’ impressive power display, as Baldelli, limited to spot duty since coming back from the disabled list on August 1, hit his three-run home run in the eighth inning off of Paul Byrd, increasing the lead to 8-1. Pena then connected off of Byrd in the ninth. Yet it was fitting that Upton and Longoria hit the big blows early on, because they stand out as the budding superstars among all of the outstanding young talent the Rays have accumulated. Upton has the raw ability to develop into a 30-30 player, while Longoria has a great hitting approach.
“What these guys are doing in the postseason is very heady stuff,” Maddon said. “First of all, they come equipped with all the bells and whistles. They’re very good athletes, and wherever you’re at, if you feel like you belong there, it matters. Regardless of your age or level of experience, if you feel like you belong, your talents can come out. If you don’t, you can be the most talented person in the world and your talents aren’t going to show up. 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 really are. There are some athletes who just don’t arrive at that mental point as quick, but B.J. and Evan have. Knowing them on a daily basis, it does not surprise me. That’s basically the simplest way I can explain it. They’re excellent athletes, but they know they belong here and they like it.”