CHICAGO - Celebrating on the field and readying for a champagne bath in the visitors clubhouse tonight after defeating the Chicago White Sox 6-2 at U.S. Cellular Field to advance to the American League championship series, the Cinderella Tampa Bay Rays awaited the winner of Boston vs. Los Angeles to write the next chapter to their improbable story.
The Rays, who beat the White Sox three out of four games to win their first playoff series, will likely be rooting for home field advantage which would come against the wild card Red Sox, but not against the Los Angeles Angels, who will have home field throughout the playoffs as a result of their 100 wins, if they should come back to beat the Red Sox.
"All I can say is, if it's the Red Sox, that would be cool," said Haverhill's Carlos Pena, who stroked three hits and knocked in two runs today. "That's my boyhood team. That's the team I grew up watching and rooting for and believe me, I rooted for them in '04 and '07. That's why if it's them, it'll be sweet for a kid who went to high school and college (Northeastern University)."
The Sox were 1-8 at Tropicana Field and hit .216 there this season with 10 homers. They scored 33 runs in nine games and had a .303 onbase percentage. Overall, the Red Sox hit .253 against the Rays and scored 87 runs in 18 games.
The Rays won the season series, 10-8, but at Tropicana Field, Sox pitchers had a 4.42 ERA and allowed 60 earned runs over 161-1/3 innings with 18 homers. Sox pitchers struck out 156 Tampa Bay batters and walked 74 of them.
There's also been a brewing rivalry for a few years which escalated this season as Tampa Bay ousted Boston as the American League East champions.
A matchup against the Angels would pit Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon against Mike Scioscia. Maddon was formerly Scioscia's bench coach.
In beating the White Sox today, the Rays received strong starting pitching from Andy Sonnanstine, who went 13-9 with a 4.38 ERA in the regular season. Sonnanstine, 25, was 1-0 with a 2.96 ERA against the White Sox in four career starts and three of those came this season when he went 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA allowing seven earned runs in 21 innings. He had pitched a complete-game three-hit shutout against the White Sox on April 19th, which was the first shutout and complete game of his career to that point. That domination spilled over into today's game.
Sonnanstine allowed no earned runs over 14 innings (two starts) against the Red Sox this season, a far cry from '07 when he was 1-1 with a 8.85 ERA against the Red Sox.
The bullpen (particularly J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour) was tremendous - pitching 3-1/3 scoreless innings in relief of Sonnastine. The White Sox managed only four hits. Balfour struck out Ken Griffey Jr. for the final out as the Rays poured out of the dugout in celebration.
Rays center-fielder B.J. Upton set the tone for the Rays, stroking a pair of solo homers in the first and third innings off White Sox starter Gavin Floyd, who allowed four runs and five hits over 3-plus innings. Upton, who hit only nine homers during the regular season after hitting 24 in 2007, also homered in Sunday's nights loss. The Rays also scored two in the fourth inning on an RBI double by Cliff Floyd and an RBI single by Dioner Navarrro.
Upton has certainly come a long way during the Rays' Cinderella season. Twice Rays manager Joe Maddon benched him for not running hard, but the 24-year-old Upton, who led the Rays with a .383 on base percentage and 44 stolen bases, didn't seem discouraged and vowed to be better and more consistent with his hustle and he's done just that.
Trailing 4-0, the White Sox got one back on a Paul Konerko home run in the bottom of the fourth, but Pena's single to right field in the fifth scored Akinori Iwamura with the fifth run and his single to right in the seventh gave Tampa Bay a 6-2 lead.
Pena, who hit 31 homers and knocked in 102 runs, also set a major league record with nine walks with the bases loaded, surpassing Boston's Jackie Jensen who had the record with eight. One of them came against former Red Sox reliever Craig Hansen on July 2nd. Pena also hit a dramatic 14th-inning, three-run homer against the Red Sox on Sept. 10 at Fenway over the Green Monster against Mike Timlin to lead the rays to a 4-2 win and their first series victory at Fenway since 1999.
Pena led all AL first basemen in fielding percentage (.998).
As usual, the White Sox, who hit 235 homers in the regular season, scored both of their runs via the long ball. Jermaine Dye stroked a solo homer to left field on Sonnanstine's first pitch with two outs in the sixth after Konerko's blast in the fourth. That was the end of Sonnanstine's night. He went 5-2/3 innings, allowed three hits, two of them homers with four strikeouts and only one walk. He was replaced by lefty J.P Howell.
Another sidebar to the game was the issue of whether Ken Griffey Jr., who is now a free-agent, planned to return to Chicago for another season or retire. He made a nice diving grab of Jason Bartlett's sinking liner in the fourth and has generally shown that he's still able to play and play center field.