KANSAS CITY, Mo. — You knew. All along you knew.
You knew when both teams were good, and you knew when it seemed that neither team wanted anything to do with the AL East championship. You knew when the Rays were so good in April and May, and you knew when the Yankees were so good in June and July. You knew when Derek Jeter took up method acting, and you knew when Dan Johnson hit one deep into the seats.
All along, you knew the Rays vs. the Yankees would come down to the final heartbeat of the regular season. Fate wouldn't have had it any other way.
This is why it can be so difficult to separate fact from fiction. Life, as in literature, loves to stretch out drama as long as possible. It loves those furious final scenes. It adores those wonderful last chapters. It loves to turn the first 161 games of a season into preamble.
And so it comes down to one final day.
After all we have seen, yeah, it makes a little sense. You know, given an Earps vs. Clantons sort of logic.
For most of the season, the Rays and Yankees competed for baseball's best record. For the final month, they competed to see who wanted the division the least. And so this season has gone, with the Rays and the Yankees walking in each other's footsteps.
Today, one of them finally beats back the other. Finally.
Just asking, but is anyone else thinking about extra innings?
It would be better, of course, if this was a high noon, meet-you-in-the-street showdown. Instead, the Rays play the last-place Royals, and the Yankees play the Pawtucket All-Stars in the uniforms of the Boston Red Sox. Still, it is odd just how often these sort of battles drag out to the final moment, isn't it? This one was like …
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. But, uh, doesn't that movie end with the good guys getting massacred by the Bolivian Army? "It's about courage and fearlessness and taking chances."
"The Quick and the Dead," said outfielder Matt Joyce. So who will be quick and who will be dead? "We'll see."
"The Golden Child," said outfielder Rocco Baldelli. "That or The Exorcist. They're about good vs. evil." And who is whom? "We're good, I think."
If this were the movies, of course, both teams would be sprinting as they approached the finish line and the theme from Chariots of Fire would be playing in the distance. Both teams would look lethal and dangerous and ready for a showdown. Both would remind you of their excellence.
Okay, it hasn't worked out quite that way. Over the last week, both teams were backing away from the title so fast you could hear that beep-beep-beep sound of a golf cart going backward. There were times you thought Bud Selig should just put the darned trophy on eBay, and if either team had any interest whatsoever, it could just bid on it. This was a title both teams could have won a half-dozen times.
Yeah, it was an ugly week. Who knows why? Maybe both teams — and the Twins and Rangers, for that matter — lost focus. Or intensity. Maybe clinching postseason berths left the clubhouses with that final-days-of-school feeling. Either way, no one established themselves as a team to beat in the playoffs. Just as a team that could be beaten.
For that reason, winning Saturday night's game over Kansas City was a pretty good night for the Rays. If nothing else, it at least parked the crazy train of a week when the Rays lost five out of six games to last-place teams. For a night, at least, the Rays won with the ease you have been waiting for all week. True, it felt a bit like a spring training game with all the pitchers — the Rays used eight, which means they may need to keep 40 pitchers on their postseason roster. Still, considering the nights that had come before it, this game looked like a team waking up from a bad dream.
Admit it. There for a while, you were wondering if the Rays would ever get another hit. The pitching rotation, one of the primary strengths of this team, no longer looked as if it would be a problem limiting the candidates to four starters; it looked as if it was struggling to find four. The defense disappeared.
At times such as this, the rest of us would love to look at the world through Joe Maddon's glasses. Maddon, as you might imagine, thinks the Rays are in perfectly spiffy shape, and he can't understand all the teeth-gnashing around him. Time after time, he says the Rays will be fine, and that this week's bad play has nothing to do with next week, and that hitting will swarm again, and the defense will return to excellence, and the offense will have nights when it gets four, five hits without any problem.
This, of course, is what drives fans crazy about Maddon. How dare he spoil their bad mood with a good one of his own?
Frankly, we'd all love to be as optimistic as Maddon. We'd love to think that B.J. Upton is going to hit in the playoffs the way he did in 2008, and Carlos Peña will find himself, and the pitching will tighten up and the defense with batten down.
One more day.
Provided it doesn't rain, of course.
Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.