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Goliath, Is that you?

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff October 9, 2008 05:59 AM

We can begin the story, of course, in any number of places, but the reality is that we need to go only as far back as the universally perceived turning point to all this, the moment the Red Sox went from annual postseason bridesmaid to perennial hardball powerhouse.

Since Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS, the humiliating evening when all seemed lost, when the Yankees rolled to a 19-8 win at Fenway, the Boston Red Sox are an astounding 22-7 in postseason play, a remarkable winning percentage of .759.

No other team since last decade’s Yankee dynasty, the one effectively ended by the Sox’ historic ALCS comeback in, yes, 2004, has been able to boast October success like that of the Red Sox, the only team this decade to have won a pair of World Series titles.

The Sox now head back to the ALCS to face the Rays with the chance for one more, and with Jon Lester throwing the ball better than anyone in baseball, it’s not a stretch to think New England may soon have a second sports dynasty to add to its decade of dominance.

There is, however, another burgeoning story to compel baseball fans here.

If Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon isn’t unanimously named the American League manager of year next month, there ought to be an investigation of the Baseball Writers of America.
What the third-year skipper has done with a franchise perennially perceived as an also-ran is nothing short of remarkable, even in a sport that has seen its share of worst-to-first fairy tales.

Oh, plenty of people in baseball will tell you they saw something coming. Some even touted the Rays’ pitching staff as the class of the AL East heading into the 2008 season. Baseball Prospectus proclaimed in February that this would be the greatest season in Rays history, predicting an 88-74 mark that would keep the team in the playoff hunt until the final month.

That forecast, of course, came up short. But really, who could have predicted this?
We should know by now that talent alone doesn’t necessarily breed success, which is why Maddon’s ability to keep the Rays surging all summer long with his “9 = 8” mantra — play hard for nine innings to become one of eight in the postseason — has remained the story of the 2008 season, despite what anyone may think about the Mannywood affair. Maddon only took the lowest payroll in the American League ($44 million) and turned Carlos Pena, James Shields, B.J. Upton, Scott Kazmir, Evan Longoria and their teammates into a 97-65 squad, AL East champs for the first time in franchise history.

Now he has Tampa Bay in the ALCS, having transformed it from national laughingstock to American darling, the team baseball fans across the country are ready to latch onto in their quest to finish the legend.

Everybody loves an upstart. We should know that all too well after ’04, when the rest of the country hopped on for the Red Sox’ own magical ride and many chose to never leave. The Red Sox are the biggest draw in all of baseball, a nation spread across state and country lines that enjoys a popularity rarely seen in sport.

Everything is cyclical, and this time it is the Tampa Bay Rays who are grasping the rest of America.

The Rays, having shed Lucifer from their distorted past, can’t possibly go toe-to-toe with the Red Sox as far as October history is concerned. Still, they begin their first-ever ALCS, beginning Friday at Tropicana Field, catwalks and all, with an all-time .750 postseason winning percentage.

That’s 3-1, mind you, fresh off their ALDS victory over the Chicago White Sox.
The David and Goliath aspect of this series is an easy one to discern, if you can tell me just who is who. Is Boston supposed to be the Goliath, the rich bullies from the north, despite injuries to third baseman Mike Lowell (whose torn labrum has rendered him inactive) and an enigmatic Josh Beckett, possibly still feeling effects of an oblique injury? Or is it the AL East champion Rays, who have never been here before but would love nothing more than to make their first-ever World Series by going through the champs — a team, by the way, against which they’ve had no problem tossing a punch or two in the past.

There isn’t a more potentially fascinating matchup than what we’ve got. Despite what John Lackey or any of his Angels teammates may think, these are the two best teams, in the American League’s best division, slated to fight for a shot at the Fall Classic.
Since that doom-and-gloom night against the Yankees four years ago, Boston has enjoyed postseason winning streaks of eight (in ‘04 en route to the title) and seven (last year during the ALCS and World Series, their longest winning streak of the year). When the Sox fell to the Angels early Monday morning, it not only ended their streak of 11 straight vs. the franchise but also snapped their nine-game postseason winning streak, just three short of the record set by the 1998-99 Yankees.

In Tampa-St. Pete, it’s been nothing but misery since the inception of the franchise. This is a team, mind you, whose watershed moment coming into the 2008 season was a 12-game winning streak in 2004. There is no Buckner, Bucky, or Boone in their past, nor is there a Dave Roberts or a Big Papi. Once on the doorstep of irrelevance, the Rays are now on the verge of winning the American League pennant.

But the fairy tale has to go through a prospering dynasty to finish its story, an ALCS showdown that should go seven, with the surviving team more than adequately able to pronounce itself the best the American League has to offer.

Eric Wilbur writes the Boston Sports Blog on Boston.com (www.boston.com/sports/columnists/wilbur/)

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