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Get thee behind us, Devil! How the East was (almost) won

Now that the Devil is in their past and heavenly October baseball is in their future, the Rays have a problem.

"We don't have anyone to throw out the ball for our first playoff game," Tampa Bay president Matt Silverman says. "MLB asked us who it'd be. We realized nobody in the history of the franchise had done anything to be worthy of the honor."

Nobody's even close. Not after Tampa Bay finished last in the American League East in nine of its previous 10 seasons. Not after playing in its Tropicana Field dungeon, a domed park that looks like a garbage can with its lid on crooked. Not after exorcising the "Devil" from its name this season and, apparently, erasing all of its past.

Central Command is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, so the Rays dream of fetching Gen. David Petraeus to throw out the first pitch. If not, as God is my witness, their second choice is Dick Vitale. That is their celebrity list. Who knew the Rays had a fan?

Until now, that is. Suddenly, we're all Ray-ving mad.

"I thought I'd seen everything in baseball. But this has been something to watch," coach Don Zimmer says. "Everybody in America picked us last. But the little Rays are ahead of the Red Sox and the Yankees. It's crazy."

The Rays aren't playing it cool. Instead, they're keeping the heat on and dreaming big — very big. Instead of coasting into the playoffs after clinching a spot, Tampa Bay is trying to pile up wins. The Rays are sporting mohawks for inspiration, bursting into cheers when the Red Sox lose and watching their magic number fall as they approach an insanely unlikely division title.

Why work so hard to beat the Red Sox? Rest up, right?

Not these Rays, only the second team to reach the postseason after finishing with the game's worst record the previous year. Many fans think of them as the ultimate miracle team, full of kids and unknowns, a club without a 15-game winner, a .300 hitter or even a proven healthy closer.

"Our whole year has been magic," says right-hander James Shields, who leads the team in victories. "Even in August, people were still doubting us. Then we swept the Angels at home and took a series from the White Sox in Chicago. This month, we took two series from Boston — up there and back home.

"We're here to stay."

Don't laugh. The Rays have a secret ingredient, an X-factor. It's not their fine rotation of Shields, Andy Sonnanstine, Scott Kazmir, Edwin Jackson and Matt Garza. Nor is it their superb defense and team speed.

Their special sauce isn't base thief B.J. Upton; obscure team MVP Jason Bartlett, a shortstop with just one home run; or slugger Carlos Pena. Their hidden edge isn't even rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, who's so good the poor Rays, forced to think outside the box, signed him to a six-year, $17.5 million contract after he had played six games in the major leagues.

Tampa Bay's trump is the Trop. The Rays love their dimly lit home, its goofy catwalks and its artificial turf and its ground rules from hell. There, they are 16-2 this season against the Angels, Red Sox and Cubs — the three teams you'd handicap as most likely to stand between them and, well, a world title.

Granted, most teams that surpass their wildest imaginings flounder in their first postseason. The Rays may. But it is inspiring to see how they've been built.

"We may accidentally be the first post-steroid team. We have pitching, defense and speed, not big guys swinging for homers," one Rays executive says. "Of course, we never had a steroid team. We just didn't realize everybody else did."

Being awful for so long let them draft high, netting Longoria and pitchers David Price, a 6-foot-6 lefty, and Wade Davis, a 6-5 right-hander, who may make the rotation next year and eventually surpass Shields and Kazmir. But the Rays have also been free-agent thieves, netting slick first-sacker Pena, designated hitter Cliff Floyd and second baseman Akinori Iwamura for nickels.

Don't trade with the Rays either. All-star catcher Dioner Navarro, 24, came from the Dodgers for nobody much. Garza and Bartlett arrived from Minnesota for hot prospect Delmon Young. Willy Aybar, after substance rehab, cost a few broken bats. Rays scouts must have had X-ray vision to see that relievers Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell could have 172 strikeouts in 144 2/3 innings.

For the Rays, with a tiny $44 million payroll, every penny counts. "We're not a small-market team, but we're still a low-revenue team. It can take a generation to build a fan base in a new town — unless you give them a winner," Silverman says. "Adding a Chad Bradford would be a round error for some team. For us, it's real money." (Bradford, who was put on waivers this summer by Baltimore, makes $3.2 million.)

If the Rays remain successful, and they are in danger of losing nobody of consequence except veteran free agent Eric Hinske, they'll have done it the old-fashioned, low-budget way — with high draft picks, top scouting, shrewd trading, cheap signings and luck.

"We're not counting on a few high-paid guys. It's a different hero every day," Shields says. "This is a room full of guys who don't cause many problems off the field and are really grateful for what's happening. In eight years here, I've seen it all. We're embracing every moment of this. We love it."

So does manager Joe Maddon, 54, who spent 15 years in the minors, including the kind (five homers in four years) that'll turn you into, "Hello, coach." Like most big-league managers, he cooks, gardens, has a degree in economics, studies fine wines, drives a Corvette, takes a bicycle on the road, has two grandchildren, a fiancee, a November wedding date and, now, a tragically ugly mohawk.

Oh, and Zimmy vouches for him. So, he's all right.

Like all Rays, Maddon is ecstatic these days and taking bows. "I'm looking for my old high school football coach, Chuck Zink, from Hazleton (Pa.) High," he says, scanning the Camden Yards stands. "This guy actually drove his motorcycle through a brick wall at large miles per hour."

That's the Rays, all right. Here they come, riding their crazy scooter straight at the brick wall of the AL East at large miles per hour. Don't bet on the wall.

Get thee behind us, Devil! How the East was (almost) won 09/25/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 26, 2008 12:05pm]

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