Saturday, December 3, 2011

2008 ALCS: Ray of Light

How they got here
There were two things that could always be counted on starting in 1998. The Yankees would always win the AL East, and Tampa Bay would always be bad. Since entering the league in 1998, the Devil Rays had never been good. In fact, they had never even won more than 70 games in a season. Their losing was as reliable as the Yankees winning.

Things changed in 2008. Tampa Bay dropped the Devil from their name, restarted their franchise for the third or fourth time, and started winning. Behind a pitching staff featuring five starters younger than 26, Tampa found themselves fighting for a division title for the first time in franchise history. On June 29, the Rays lept into first place, and they stayed there for all but two days the rest of the year. What made that even more surprising was that it wasn't the Yankees who they passed, but Boston. As the Rays won a tight division race by two games, it was the Red Sox who claimed the runner up spot and grabbed the AL Wild Card, with the Yankees staying home from the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.

It shouldn't have been a surprise that Boston was there in the end. They were the defending World Series champions, their second title in four seasons, and came out determined not to have a World Series hangover the next year. That they lost the division title was seen as a minor inconvenience; that it was Tampa instead of the Yankees ahead of them was merely a nice story.

Boston eased past Anaheim in four games in the ALDS. Tampa also beat Chicago with relative ease in their first-round series, setting up an ALCS between the two East Division foes.

Boston and Tampa split a pair of close games in Florida before the series shifted to Boston. There, the Tampa Bay bats came alive, with the Rays winning blowouts in games 3 and 4 and taking a 7-0 lead into the seventh inning of Game 5. Then, nine outs from a World Series berth, Tampa's normally dominant bullpen fell apart. J.D. Drew's walkoff single completed Boston's comeback as they forced a return trip to Tropicana Field.

Postseason stalwart Josh Beckett picked up the win in Game 6 for Boston, sending the series to a Game 7. There, it looked Boston had all the momentum. After the previous year's comeback from a 3-games-to-1 deficit in the ALCS - this on the heels of their historic comeback against the Yankees in 2004 - Boston was gaining the reputation as comeback specialists. Tampa, meanwhile, had the pressure of the first elimination game in its franchise's brief history.

The Game
It was an unlikely spot for David Price to be in. When the 2008 season started, he was in his first season in A ball, just 22 years old but full of potential. As the season went on, he kept climbing the Rays' minor league ladder, blowing batters away at every level before finally earning a call up in September. Oh, and all this was in his first professional season.

And now here he was, on the mound with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of Game 7, Rays up two with two outs, needing an out. Just one out. At the plate was J.D. Drew, the silent assassin for the Red Sox, the man who came up so big for Boston the previous season. He had another chance. Price threw his first pitch. Drew was taking all the way. Strike one.

Seven Major League games. That was all the experience Price had at this point. Five regular season games, plus two more in the playoffs, added to the roster just for this series to pitch to Boston's powerful lefthanded batters. He hadn't given up a run yet in the series. The crowd was screaming, their cowbells clanging. He fired. Strike two.

It had been a pretty good game to this point. Boston had scored in the first on a home run by Dustin Pedroia, but then Matt Garza had calmed down for Tampa, not giving up anything else. Tampa had eased back into the game - a run in the 4th, another in the fifth, a home run in the 7th to give them an insurance run. And now, they had to hold it. Price was their fifth pitcher of this eighth inning as manager Joe Maddon tried anything to get through the inning. Price was their last hope. Going for the strike out, he tried to get Drew to chase one. No dice. Ball one.

Maybe it was perfect that it was Price in the game. After all, he hadn't been a part of the losing. He had succeeded all his life, didn't have the losing mentality. He expected to win. So forget about his lack of experience. He was the guy they needed.

The 1-2 pitch. A nasty, driving fastball. Drew started to swing, but then thought "maybe that one's outside." It was too late, though. He tried to hold up, couldn't, and Price had his strike out. He screamed as he jumped off his mound, pumped his fist, yelled into his glove. The biggest strike out in Tampa Bay history.

The Rays closed it out in the ninth. After a walk that was almost a strike out, Price got to more punchouts before a grounder ended the series. The team that had never had a winning record was heading to the World Series.

Tampa Bay couldn't keep its dream season going, losing in five games to a very good Philadelphia team in the World Series. But it didn't matter. Price's strikeout became a turning point for the franchise. That one at bat seemed to make them winners. They changed from perennial doormats to perennial winners. They haven't had a losing record since.

What I'm doing.

The list so far:

10. 2008 ALCS: Tampa Bay 3, Boston 1
11. 1984 NLCS: San Diego 6, Chicago 3
12. 2003 NLCS: Florida 9, Chicago 6
13. 2004 NLCS: St. Louis 5, Houston 2
14. 1972 ALCS: Oakland 2, Detroit 1
15. 1973 ALCS: Oakland 3, Baltimore 0
16. 1985 ALCS: Kansas City 6, Toronto 2
17. 2007 ALCS: Boston 11, Cleveland 2
18. 1991 NLCS: Atlanta 4, Pittsburgh 0
19. 1973 NLCS: New York 7, Cincinnati 2
20. 1987 NLCS: St. Louis 6, San Francisco 0
21. 1988 NLCS: Los Angeles 6, New York 0
22. 2004 ALCS: Boston 10, New York 3
23. 1986 ALCS: Boston 8, California 1
24: 1996 NLCS: Atlanta 15, St. Louis 0

Still to come:
1972 NLCS: Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh
1976 ALCS: Kansas City vs. New York
1977 ALCS: Kansas City vs. New York
1980 NLCS: Houston vs. Philadelphia
1981 NLCS: Los Angeles vs. Montreal
1982 ALCS: California vs. Milwaukee
1992 NLCS: Atlanta vs. Pittsburgh
2003 ALCS: Boston vs. New York
2006 NLCS: New York vs. St. Louis

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