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Again, Rays show no fear

ST. PETERSBURG

You were nervous. It's okay, any normal person would be.

You had visions of a season collapsing in a single night. Of a young team finally falling to its knees.

Don't feel guilty. The fan sitting next to you probably felt the same way.

But here's the thing:

Of all the words we have used to describe the Tampa Bay Rays of 2008 — and by now, the thesaurus is dog-eared — one description fits better than all the rest.

These guys are fearless.

This collection of prospects, retreads, imports and roustabouts is either too cool, too confident or too clueless to realize it had no reason to believe it could be in the position it is today.

And that is one victory away from the American League Championship Series.

The Rays won again Friday night, 6-2. Came from behind for the second consecutive game against the Chicago White Sox. Took a 2-0 lead in the AL Division Series and showed a world just tuning in that no team and no person can intimidate this crew.

"I like to look in people's faces. And these guys? They're fine," manager Joe Maddon said. "If it turns out we're noted for one thing this year and that's to be fearless, I would be very proud of that."

If you are impressed by percentages and odds, you might want to consider this: In the 13 years of the best-of-five division series format, 84.4 percent of the teams that have gotten a 2-0 lead have gone on to win their series.

It's still possible the Rays will fall short. As recently as 2003, Oakland blew a lead against Boston. But by now, you can at least feel secure that these Rays will not collapse. They may lose, but they will not choke.

"They're young, and they don't know any better," said 39-year-old reliever Troy Percival. "Fearless. Relentless. Carefree. You can use any of those words. The thing I love about these guys is that they're just fun to be around."

You want to talk about fearless?

Then you might want to consider the size of Scott Kazmir's heart.

He has been called overrated. He has been accused of being a head case. He has struggled to produce results commensurate with his skills for so many weeks, it's become a joke with a dozen cruel punch lines.

Kazmir was so awful in the first inning Friday night, David Price was stretching in the bullpen three hitters into the game. By the time Kazmir threw his 15th pitch of the first inning, there were boos from the Tropicana Field bleachers.

Yet, two hours later, he was still throwing. Kazmir gutted his way through more than five innings, 11 base runners and a ton of doubts, and emerged with a 3-2 lead.

"We needed that out of Kaz," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "He fought all night and gave us a chance to get back in the game."

You want to talk about fearless?

Then you might want to consider the bravura of Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell.

You have never seen two more mismatched relievers. Balfour is an Australian who throws nothing but fastballs. Howell is a Californian whose fastball is a misnomer. Balfour could make a pro wrestler look meek. Howell could make a stoner seem intense.

A year ago, no manager in his right mind would have entrusted either of them with a lead late in a game. And now Maddon calls on them when the drama is at its peak.

Balfour came in in the sixth inning Friday night with one out, a runner on second and the score 3-2. Like he did in Game 1, Balfour came out of the jam without surrendering a run.

An inning later, Howell came in with no outs and runners on first and second. He retired three consecutive White Sox hitters. In the eighth, he got three Chicago hitters on called third strikes.

"It's pretty amazing to be a part of this," said reliever Dan Wheeler. "Just when you think it can't happen again, somebody else goes out and pulls it off."

You want to talk about fearless?

Then you might want to consider Fernando Perez, a 25-year-old rookie who was in the minors less than a month ago, running full speed from rightfield and snatching a foul ball out of the air before crashing into the bullpen bench.

You might want to consider Aki Iwamura, who has his own army of Japanese media following his every move this postseason, hitting an opposite-field home run to put the Rays ahead in the fifth inning.

You might want to consider Rocco Baldelli battling a disease, B.J. Upton playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder, Carl Crawford coming back this week from hand surgery in August and playing as if he hadn't missed a day.

This season is more than seven months old, but in some ways these guys are just getting started. For as long as the Rays have been in first place, and as many challenges as they have already answered, most of America is just now starting to realize who these guys are. And what this team is all about.

"To get respect, we have to do more than what most teams have to do," Perez said. "Some teams, just because of who they are, will always get a lot of attention no matter what they're doing. We have to go above and beyond just to have people talk about us.

"You turn on TV and they're talking about us, but there's this discernible level of sarcasm. And that's fine, we're not complaining about that. We just continue to prove it on the field."

Relentlessly.

Fearlessly.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

AMERICAN LEAGUE DIVISION SERIES

Game 2: Rays 6, White Sox 2

Game 3: Sunday at 4 p.m. TBS | 1250-AM

Again, Rays show no fear 10/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 6, 2008 1:59pm]
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