Just raise a toast to Tampa Bay
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The Big Collapse? Just a footnote in Tampa Bay history.
The owner can have a good laugh about it now. That messy business at Fenway Thursday night got him two more lucrative home dates.
Nope, for the Tampa Bay Rays it's all blue skies, or, as the late, great Al McGuire would say, seashells and balloons. The Tampa Bay Rays are going to the World Series.
They got there the best possible way, too. There were no controversies, no disputed plays, no need for replay. They took on the mighty defending champion Red Sox in the franchise's first Game 7 and beat them fair and square. Matt Garza outpitched Jon Lester, they got what they needed from the bullpen - most notably during the dramatic eighth inning, when manager Joe Maddon used five pitchers to get his three outs - and they got the big hits. They won it, 3-1, and on Wednesday night they will welcome the Philadelphia Phillies to the world of Cowbells and Catwalks.
How bad would it have been around here had they not won this series? How scarred would the players have been? Would the manager ever live it down? Would the fans who are discovering the exquisite joy of quality baseball and, specifically, quality postseason baseball, dismiss this team as a collection of chokers and cancel any plans about investing their emotions and hard-earned dollars into another season of Rays baseball?
We'll never know.
We'll never know because now they do not have to atone for their sins. There will be no scathing inquisition. They took care of their own absolution by winning the game they had to win.
They won it with talent. The lineup written out by Maddon included four No. 1 draft picks. That included winning pitcher Garza, a former Twins numero uno who shocked no one in the baseball community by overmatching the Red Sox in the biggest game he's ever pitched. Everyone in the game knows he has great stuff, and last night he apparently decided it would be a nice idea to bring his A game to The Trop.
Garza gave up a home run to Dustin Pedroia, the second man he faced, and not much more. The Red Sox didn't get another hit until the seventh.
Talent, talent, talent. Evan Longoria, the Mike Schmidt in waiting, tied the game in the fourth with a double down the right-field line that scored Carlos Peña from first. Longoria never hits the ball in that direction. But in a Game 7 you learn very quickly to do whatever it takes.
Talent, talent, talent. Rocco Baldelli was once the No. 6 pick in the entire draft. That was endless injuries and a very debilitating disease ago. Rocco is Mr. Hard Luck, but he is also Mr. Perseverance. Unable to play before Aug. 10 because he has contracted a hideous thing called Mitochondrial Disorder, an ongoing malady. He gets fatigued easily, and it's a semi-miracle he can still perform at the big league level.
But he can, and last night he broke a 1-1 tie with a fifth inning single to left. There wasn't a dry eye in the dugout, or in the state of Rhode Island, I can tell you that.
What a game this was. Lester wasn't bad, you know. He set down the first nine men in order and he was only knocked around by one man. That fellow was designated hitter Willy Aybar, who got things rolling in the fifth with a leadoff double into the left-field corner and who provided insurance with a leadoff homer in the seventh. Lester, who struck out eight and walked nobody, pitched well enough to win a lot of games, but not this one.
The Red Sox made them earn it. They put two on with one out in the seventh, but Garza got Mark Kotsay on a fly to right and then he whiffed Jason Varitek.
Speaking of atonement, stand back for the attacks on Terry Francona. The manager had two opportunities to hit for Varitek in the late innings with men on base, and he chose not to do so. Was he fooled by that homer off a mistake pitch the night before? Was he just, plain and simple, too loyal to the beloved Captain? He explained it away by saying he didn't want Sean Casey facing a lefty but how could that have been worse than Varitek batting against anybody? Oh, the skipper is going to hear about this one.
The top of the eighth inning was a miniseries all by itself. It began with shortstop Jason Bartlett misplaying a routine Alex Cora grounder. This is when Maddon earned his day's pay. In a Game 7 you empty every bullet in the chamber if need be, so Maddon changed pitchers four times. Dan Wheeler replaced Garza. Two batters and one out later, Coco Crisp was aboard with the third and final Red Sox hit.
Maddon brought in lefty J.P. Howell to face David Ortiz, who hit into a force play. Underhander Chad Bradford walked Kevin Youkilis. Bye bye. Maddon quickly went to David Price.
Talent, talent, talent. David Price became the fifth No. 1 pick to appear in this game for the Rays. He was the No. 1 just last year. He is a rangy southpaw out of Vanderbilt, and some think he is the Next Great Thing, but he is only 23 and this was only his eighth big league appearance.
But Maddon has enormous faith in this kid. Price was the winning pitcher in that wild Game 2, and now here he was being asked to close the game that would send his team to the World Series. That's a pretty you-know-whatsy move by any skipper, wouldn't you say?
So now you know. Experience is nice, but nothing beats talent. The best team in the American League is going to the World Series.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.