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Beat the odds? Rays pound them

BOSTON

Do not speak of the odds against them any longer. Do not consider anything, including the World Series, beyond their grasp.

Not after this.

Not after the Rays won the unwinnable game.

There is no way Tampa Bay was supposed to win this game. Not here. Not with these hitters. Not against him.

From the time the site was determined, from the time the pitching matchups were announced, this was the game that seemed to be a guaranteed victory for the Red Sox. In Boston, this was considered money in the bank, a party in the park and a gunslinger on the mound.

Even for Team Longshot, this was supposed to be the longest shot of them all. For one thing, the Rays had won only two games in Fenway Park all season. For another, Jon Lester was pitching for the Red Sox, and he had been so good in his postseason career that fans were starting to refer to him as "the sensational Jon Lester."

And then, one more time, the Rays took a Louisville Slugger and spent most of Monday evening pounding the odds into dust in a 9-1 victory. Of all of the Rays' 102 victories this year, and no team in baseball has won more, this might have been the most impressive.

From here, anything is possible. From here, nothing is out of reach. Not this series, and not the one after it.

The Rays now lead the best-of-seven American League Championship Series two games to one, but by now, Boston's confidence has to be shaken. Tampa Bay has 18 runs and 25 hits in the last two games. Meanwhile, the Red Sox's David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jason Varitek are a combined 0-for-34 in the series.

By now, you don't have to be Ortiz's body language interpreter to read the faces of the Red Sox Nation. All you have to do is wander through the crowd in the eighth inning.

The stands are emptying, which rarely happens around here. Fans are folding their team-authenticated blankets, and they have their hands shoved deep in their official team jackets.

Citizens of The Nation sit slumped, perhaps stunned. When the nightly version of Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline begins to play, the fans join in half-heartedly. At the time, it is 8-1. Perhaps they would prefer Song Sung Blue.

"I kept hearing how we weren't going to win this game," Rays' pitcher Matt Garza said. "This is Fenway. We've won two games here all year. If I were a fan, I probably would have bet on the Red Sox, too. It kind of left us with a chip on our shoulders. How many times do we have to prove to people that we can play?"

Since he asked, the number is six. Two more in the ALCS, and four in the World Series. You know, in case you are keeping score at home.

It would help, of course, if Garza pitched the way he did in this one. He admitted being ticked after turning on the television to hear the constant chatter about Lester. "I was the forgotten guy," he said.

To be honest, however, it was hard to blame people for concentrating on Lester. In five career postseason starts, Lester had a glittering 0.77 ERA. Going into the third inning, he had gone four postseason starts without giving up an earned run.

"We do believe in ourselves," outfielder Rocco Baldelli said. "We went out there and we weren't intimidated by the situation at all. But you can't blame anyone for picking them (the Red Sox). We knew this would be as tough a game as there was. We hit right-handers better than we've hit lefties, and you come in with pretty much the best left-hander in baseball" in Lester.

Said third baseman Evan Longoria: "In our minds, we wanted to come in here and steal one. I don't like to give anyone too much credit, but we didn't think it was going to be this one. I didn't, anyway. Not the way he (Lester) had been pitching."

Of course, perhaps that was because Lester didn't have to face the bats of the mighty Rays. And if that sounds funny to you, think of how it must sound to the Red Sox pitchers.

What, were the Rays hitters playing rope-a-dope for 162 games? Remember, this is the team that didn't have anyone hit .300 this season. In the postseason, however, they have seven players over .300. B.J. Upton and Longoria look as if they are doing Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews impersonations.

Ask yourself: Has a hitting coach ever had a better weekend than the Rays' Steve Henderson? All of a sudden, this is Murderer's Row. This is Thunder Road. This is the Florida Power Company.

On the other hand, those guys over there are the Boston Red Sox. If you remember the way they came back from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in '04, or from a 3-1 deficit against Cleveland in '07, you realize this is no time to buy champagne. There is still some series to go.

But you have to like the Rays' chances after this one. They took the best shot the Red Sox had to offer. They beat the unbeatable pitcher, they won in the unassailable fortress, and they did it with the unappreciated lineup. Their pitchers are humming, their defense is solid and their hitting is the most formidable it has been all season.

If they continue to play like this, you can begin to think about the unthinkable.

Just beyond that large green wall, for instance.

Doesn't that look like the World Series over there?

Beat the odds? Rays pound them 10/13/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 7:28am]

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