ST. PETERSBURG-Just down I-275 from Tropicana Field is the Sunshine State Skyway, a 5½-mile stretch that connects St. Petersburg and Palmetto that includes causeways, a bridge that reaches a height of 193 feet, and a spectacular view of the Gulf of Mexico. There were no Rays leaping off of the bridge early Friday morning after their charter flight arrived from Boston. The thought never even crossed their minds, despite blowing a 7-0 seventh-inning lead and a chance to wrap up the American League Championship Series on Thursday night when the Red Sox rallied for a memorable 8-7 victory in Game Five at Fenway Park. It was the second-largest comeback in post-season history, behind the Cubs‘ 10-8 victory over the Athletics in Game Four of the 1929 World Series after trailing 8-0.
Thursday’s game didn’t end until after midnight, and manager Joe Maddon gave the Rays the day off on Friday after their plane landed in Tampa at around five in the morning. Maddon and right-handers James Shields and Matt Garza did drop by Tropicana Field on Friday afternoon to attend an off-day press conference, and none seemed worse for the wear of not being able to clinch what would be the franchise’s first World Series berth.
Maddon is the eternal optimist, and on a bright day full of sunshine on the Gulf Coast, Maddon’s disposition matched the weather. “I feel good,” Maddon said. “If you had the chance to walk around our clubhouse [Thursday] night, you could see how well our guys handled it. I know we have a young team, but we’ve gained a lot of experience in a lot of areas during this postseason, and my experience with this group is that we’ve been very resilient all year. Furthermore, like I’ve said since the beginning of the postseason, I like the way our guys are going about the process. They’ve handled themselves great all season and right on through the postseason. Nothing has changed.”
When the Rays reconvene today, Garza expects the mood to be the same, and dismissed the idea that there might be a hangover effect after such a difficult loss. “We’ll just keep fighting, just like we have been doing since the beginning of the season,” said Garza, who would, if necessary, start Game Seven Sunday night against Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester at Tropicana Field. “We had a feeling the Red Sox were going to make a push like this. We knew this Red Sox team wasn’t going to go down quietly, so we’re going to keep playing hard for nine innings like we have all year, and see what happens.”
Tonight’s Game Six will match have James Shields on the hill for the Rays against Red Sox right-hander Josh Beckett. “Our clubhouse has been the same in the postseason as it’s been all year; we’re relaxed, having fun, enjoying the moment, and taking every single game as it is,” Shields said. “[Game Five] was a washout as far as we’re concerned. We’re still 3-2 in the series. We’re still in good shape. We know that.” Shields will be pitching tonight in Tropicana Field, where he has been outstanding all year, going 9-2 with a 2.57 ERA in 16 regular-season starts while holding hitters to a .234/.277/351 line. “I think it’s just being more comfortable and pitching more times here than I do in other parks,” Shields said in explaining his home success. “I think having the crowds that we’ve been having lately is definitely a factor, and our record is really, really good at home.”
The Rays are tough to beat at home, a venue unlike almost any other in the major leagues; they went 57-24 there in the regular season and are 3-1 in the postseason. Tropicana Field is one of two remaining stadiums in the major leagues with a roof that is not retractable. The din can be deafening when the place is packed; the fans ring cowbells, professional wrestlers are shown on the video board bellowing encouragement, the team’s theme song, “Feel The Heat,” is blasted incessantly over the public address system, and lights flash whenever the home team does something big. There are four catwalks that ring the roof of the facility, and balls hitting them are considered in play. Traditionalists scoff at the noise meter and funny ricochets, referring to games at the Trop as “arena baseball.”
Still, it is home to the Rays while they continue their efforts to acquire government funding for a bay-front park with a retractable roof that would be built a few blocks away. “I think the general attitude before I got here was that everyone hated the place,” Maddon said. “Well, it’s our home, and I thought we should turn a negative into a positive. It’s the facility we have, and I felt we could use it to our advantage, make it a real pit where we could have a great home-field advantage, and make it a place where other teams don’t want to visit. That is what it has become. Playing here is a great advantage for us.”
That is why Shields believes there is a silver lining to the Rays blowing the big lead in Game Five. They now have two opportunities to clinch the pennant in front of the home fans. “It would definitely be sweet to do it here,” Shields said. “It would be a great thing for our fans and the city.”