The Tampa Bay Rays continued to silence the naysayers on Monday afternoon, defeating star left-hander Jon Lester and the Boston Red Sox to take a 2-1 lead in the American League Championship Series.
This was not how the script was supposed to play out.
After all, the Rays were facing the new ace of the Boston staff. Lester, who had not allowed a run in 14.0 innings in the Division Series, was expected to shut down a Rays’ lineup featuring several hitters who have struggled against lefties.
According to nearly every article written before the first pitch, in fact, it was practically a foregone conclusion that the Rays would have a difficult time scoring runs while the Rex Sox cruised to a 2-1 series lead. Many writers seemed to forget that anything can happen in a short series, let alone one game, as Boston had its best pitcher in Lester, who has been practically untouchable at Fenway Park, on the bump.
Rocco Baldelli, Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and the Tampa Bay offense, however, had other plans, reminding us what Kevin Garnett taught us back during the NBA Finals: anything is possible.
It started with Upton, who is turning into the Rays’ version of Mr. October. Coming off his game-winning sacrifice fly in Game Two, he gave the Rays a commanding 4-0 lead after blasting a long three-run homer off of Lester in the top of third inning. The speedy center fielder, a target of criticism among Tampa Bay fans for his apparent lack of hustle at times during the regular season, now has a 1.162 OPS in 31 playoff at-bats. Even more impressive, though, he has five dingers this October, only four fewer than he hit all year—thanks to a shoulder injury that prevented him from turning on the ball as well as he did in his 20/20 campaign back in 2007.
Longoria then increased the Rays’ lead to 5-0 later that frame, belting a long homer, his fourth in October, over the Green Monster.
Baldelli, making his first appearance in the ALCS, also got in on the homer barrage. A native of nearby Woonsocket, R.I., he put the game out of reach with a three-run jack in the top of the eighth inning that increased the Rays’ lead to seven. While his mitochondrial disorder may prevent him from ever fulfilling his potential and injuries have made all of the Joe DiMaggio comparisons seem laughable now, it was a nice moment for the once-promising center fielder who struggled through years of losing with the Devil Rays.
Carlos Pena added a solo shot in the top of the ninth to bring the score to its eventual 9-1 final, as Tampa Bay once again tied the ALCS record for most home runs in a game. For a team that is always applauded for its ability to manufacture runs, they have left the yard a lot this past week. Three things have been a constant during the TBS broadcast in the past two ALCS games, in fact: Craig Sager wearing a crazy suit, a lot of Frank TV ads and equally as many Tampa Bay home runs.
With the way that Matt Garza was pitching on the night, there was more than enough offense. Too bad they could not save some of those runs for later in the series, especially if they are shut down like they were by Daisuke Matsuzaka again.
Whether it had anything to do with his refusal to speak with reporters before the game—a ritual which he broke before his latest start, a rough outing against the Chicago White Sox in the Division Series—Garza gave his team an excellent effort. With his bullpen on the ropers after Game Two, he worked into the seventh inning. Although his fastball command was not where it has been, he attacked the strike zone in order to stay ahead of a patient Boston lineup for most of the night, allowing only one earned run while striking out five to earn the win.
J.P. Howell tossed two scoreless frames in relief of Garza, again proving his value to the Rays. Edwin Jackson got a tune-up inning in the ninth, retiring the side on 14 pitches.
And, just like that, Tampa Bay has once again silenced some of its critics and doubters. There is a lot of baseball left to be played, and the series will likely go back and forth. There is no masking the significance of what transpired on Monday afternoon, however.
The Rays’ offense, which has not been an area of strength for a team that has excelled at run prevention, was able to get to Boston’s best pitcher. For Tampa Bay to advance to the World Series, this—stealing a game from Lester—was an absolute must.
The Rays also guaranteed that they will return to Tropicana Field for at least one more night of Cowbell.
Only a few days ago, after Boston won the series opener down in St. Petersburg, it seemed as if the Rays’ home field advantage was no longer a factor. The Red Sox had just taken down the majors’ best home team on its own turf, with postseason stud Josh Beckett slated to start Game Two.
What a difference 18—I mean, 20—innings have made.
Now, all of the chatter about the Rays allegedly losing that advantage—and the lack of postseason experience nonsense—can be put to rest.
The tide has officially turned.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.