ST. PETERSBURG-Joe Maddon is undoubtedly the coolest cat managing in the major leagues today. He never panicked when his upstart Rays appeared on the verge of gagging away the American League Championship Series and threatened to write an unhappy ending to what had been one of the great fairy tales in baseball history. Thrust into the national spotlight for the first time in his three-year managerial career, Maddon has captivated the national media by having an anecdote about everything and giving philosophical answers to questions about strategy.

However, Maddon finally let his guard down Sunday night. The Rays had just concluded the most improbable march to a berth in the World Series in nearly four decades ; the 1969 Mets are the only team that seems comparable to the 2008 Rays. After going through his usual routine with local radio personality Whitney Johnson about what music he listened to before Game Seven of the ALCS-some Rolling Stones along with a sprinkling of Four Tops and a Bruce Springsteen finale-and answered some strategy questions, Maddon reflected on his team. When asked about what his team had just accomplished by beating the Red Sox 3-1 in Game Seven, Maddon’s voice cracked and he had to take off his black-rimmed glasses and wipe his eyes before answering.

“Believe me, when you deal with these people on a daily basis, you really understand their personalities, where they’ve come from, where they’re at today,” Maddon said. “I’m so proud of the group in general, the fact that we have grown in such a short period of time. I’m really proud of the way they’ve handled themselves to this entire moment. It’s remarkable, especially what we what had to battle through at the end of this series. It’s gratifying. It’s beyond unbelievable.”

The Rays had the pennant all but wrapped up in Game Five as they held a 3-1 edge in the series and took a 7-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning, and then got the first two batters out. However, a quick finish to the ALCS fell apart as the Red Sox rallied to win 8-7 at Fenway Park to stay alive, then forced Sunday’s decisive game with a 4-2 win in Game Six on Saturday night at Tropicana Field. To some people’s way of thinking, there was seemingly no way the Rays could beat the October-tested Red Sox in Game Seven. The Red Sox, after all, had come back form 3-1 deficits to win the ALCS in 2004 and 2007. Yet, the Rays defied the odds in Game Seven and will face the Phillies in the World Series beginning Wednesday night at Tropicana Field. The Rays are just the third team to advance to the World Series immediately after at least 10 consecutive losing seasons, joining the 1914 Braves and 2006 Tigers.

Matt Garza allowed one run and two hits in seven innings for his second win in the series, walking three and striking out nine while throwing 118 pitches, one short of his career high. The winning run was driven in by right fielder Rocco Baldelli, whose once-promising career was in jeopardy at the start of the season when doctors diagnosed that it was mitochondrial problems causing his muscles to fatigue and lose strength at a rapid rate. Rookie left-hander David Price had thrown just one post-season inning and 14 regular-season innings in his fledging career, but last night he was the fifth and final pitcher to get the Rays through a scoreless eighth then stayed in for the ninth to record his first major league save.

It was certainly fitting that improbable occurrences such as Baldelli driving in the winning run and Price getting the save kept alive a season that might have seemed as improbable as the Rays’ 97 regular-season games (27 more than any other season in franchise history). “We’ve been like this all year,” said Garza, named the ALCS Most Valuable Player for going 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA in two starts. “We told ourselves before the game that people have been doubting us from Day One. People were happy when we got our 71st win [to break the club record]. People were excited when we got our 81st win because we cleared the .500 mark. We still kept going. People kept saying we were going to falter in August and September. We were going to falter when we faced Chicago. We didn’t match up well against Boston. We’ve proved doubters wrong this entire time, and we just told each other to keep believing, keep fighting, keep playing the way we played all year and good things would happen. We just took this game like it was another game in June.”

However, this wasn’t just another game in June when the Rays were still trying to get 20,000 to come out of the sun and watch them play indoors at Tropicana. On Sunday night, the roof seemed ready to blow off the place following the final out as the Rays’ fight song “Feel The Heat” blasted over the sound system.

Maddon is admittedly and widely acknowledged as an unconventional thinker, and he was far from conventional in handling his pitching staff in an elimination game. In particular, Maddon allowed Garza to throw more pitches than in all but one of his previous 54 career starts. And while each of those 118 pitches was of the highest leverage, Maddon stuck with Garza even when he seemed on the brink of disaster. Garza was clinging to a 2-1 lead in the sixth inning when he walked Pedroia-who’d homered in the first-with one out in the sixth, bringing David Ortiz to the plate. Maddon had elected to not bring in a left-handed reliever to face the left-handed power hitter in Game Five, and Ortiz’s three-run home run in the seventh inning in that situation helped propel the Red Sox to their big comeback. Yet, Maddon also did not go to a lefty this time either; in fact, he didn’t even have anyone warming up. Garza got Ortiz to strike out swinging, and catcher Dioner Navarro threw out Pedroia trying to steal second base for an inning-ending double play.

Garza ran into more trouble in the seventh when J.D. Drew coaxed a one-out walk and went to second on Jason Bay‘s single. With the left-handed hitting Mark Kotsay coming to the plate, Maddon called time and walked to the mound, which seemed to surely signal the end of Garza’s night. However, Maddon stuck with Garza, and the hurler escaped the inning unscathed by getting Kotsay to fly out to right then striking out Jason Varitek. “Joe came out and I told him I wasn’t coming out of the game,” Garza said with a grin.

Willy Aybar gave the Rays some breathing room with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the seventh inning that pushed the lead to 3-1. However, when shortstop Jason Bartlett booted Alex Cora‘s ground ball to start the eighth, Garza’s night was over but Maddon’s faith had been justified. “He had great stuff tonight, he really did, and he’s a horse,” Maddon said. “During the season, a lot of times you monitor guys’ number of pitches so that they can be fresh this time of the year. I thought about it as the game was in progress, and I knew he was good for more than the normal number of pitches. He was a stallion tonight.”

Garza said he did not feel any effects of an extended pitch count. “When I came out, I wasn’t out of gas,” Garza said. “I told myself from the beginning that I was going to leave it all out there, no matter what. I knew I had to go hard and give my team the best chance to win. I didn’t know if today was last start of the year, so I just went out there and emptied my tank.”

Maddon then played matchups throughout the rest of the eighth, employing four relievers to get three outs as the Red Sox failed to score, leaving the bases loaded. Right-hander Dan Wheeler initially relieved Garza and gave up a single to Coco Crisp that put runners on first and second before getting Pedroia to fly to left for the first out. Left-hander J.P. Howell then induced Ortiz to ground into a fielder’s choice as Crisp was forced at second while Cora advanced to third. Right-hander Chad Bradford walked Kevin Youkilis to load the bases, but then Maddon called on Price, the first overall pick in last year’s first-year player draft from Vanderbilt.

Price walked into the biggest baseball moment of his life and struck out J.D. Drew on a 97 mph fastball that induced a checked swing to end the inning. The strikeout came after Price got a quick pep talk from another rookie, third baseman Evan Longoria. “He came to the mound and told me that this is why the Rays drafted me first and gave me all that money,” Price recalled with a laugh. “He said I was born to be in this situation.”

Maddon’s next move was even more surprising than sticking with Garza for so long: he sent Price back out for the ninth. The decision looked questionable when Bay drew a leadoff walk. However, Price struck out Kotsay and Varitek, then got pinch-hitter Jed Lowrie to ground into a pennant-clinching force play, with second baseman Akinori Iwamura fielding the ball and racing to the bag for the out.

In the end, Maddon felt talent would trump experience, and Price came through for him. “Going into this whole thing, I wanted to keep the people in our bullpen in their regular roles based on what they had done all year,” Maddon said. “That’s always the first priority, but knowing that you have this kind of ace in your back pocket like David, I decided it was time to use him. It’s not always about number of pitches but also the emotions expended when it comes to relief pitchers. I just thought a lot of our guys had already expended themselves and David was fresh. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

It turned out fine, just like seemingly everything else the Rays have done in a magical season that has been extended a little bit longer. “It’s funny to think I was on the mound for the last out of us going to the World Series because I wasn’t even supposed to be here this year,” Price said. “I was supposed to spend the whole season in the minor leagues and now I’m going to the World Series. It’s really unbelievable.” Price then paused. “Really, none of us were supposed to be here this year, at least not in the postseason and not in the World Series,” Price said. “But we’re here. Maybe we just don’t know any better.”

It was suggested to Red Sox manager Terry Francona, whose team came up short in its bid to win back-to-back World Series for the first time since 1998-2000 Yankees, that perhaps 2008 is the Rays’ year and there was nothing he could have done to prevent destiny. “I don’t know about the ‘team of destiny’ stuff,” Francona said. “They’re a pretty darn good team. We’ve got a pretty darn good team, and they beat us. There was nothing fluky about it. We went toe-to-toe with each other, and the Rays won. It wasn’t destiny-they deserved it, just like they’ve deserved everything they’ve got all season.”

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\". . . the 1969 Mets are the only team that seems comparable to the 2008 Rays.\" Well, last year\'s play-offs inspired a hoard of greatest late surge pennant race stories. This year we need to look at the worse to best comparables. Others which come to mind: \'67 Red Sox, \'87 & \'91 Twins, and the \'91 Braves. Although, they only came from fourth place, the \'06 Tigers were more surprising than this year\'s Rays. Some of us, to a large but not complete degree, saw this coming.
Hi John, You are not the first to make the comparison to the 69 Mets, but I wonder if that works. The 69 Mets were not a particularly young team. They had some young HoF starting pitchers, but a lot of the team consisted of cast-offs and veterans having career years. The Rays seem a little more like the 87 Twins-- a team with a young core that came together at the right time. Joe Madden even remnids me a bit of Tom Kelly.
Great juxtaposition of lines from Garza: \"When I came out, I wasn\'t out of gas,\" Garza said. \"...I didn\'t know if today was last start of the year, so I just went out there and emptied my tank.\"
I liked Francona\'s post-game comments pointing out that there was nothing fluky about the Rays win and praising their talent. Very classy on his part.