Greatest points ever: Rocco Baldelli drives in Willy Aybar to lift Tampa Bay Rays into 2008 World Series

Willy Aybar scored from second base on Rocco Baldelli's fifth-inning single to give the Rays a 2-1 lead in Game 7 of the 2008 American League Championship Series on Oct. 19 at Tropicana Field, and the Rays went on to win 3-1 and advance to the World Series for the first, and thus far only, time in franchise history.

Ending the futility

After 10 seasons of futility and a reputation as one of MLB's worst franchises — on and off the field — the Rays made a stunning worst-to-first run that turned Tampa Bay into a crazed baseball town. The season was filled with big moments, topped by Dan Johnson's dramatic pinch-hit game-tying homer in a key September game at Fenway and Fernando Perez's daring dash in the 11th inning to win Game 2 and even the ALCS. But Baldelli's hit and Aybar's run was the most significant because of what it led to, a berth in World Series.

Setting the scene

The game, as expected, was shaping up as a pitcher's duel between the Rays' Matt Garza and Boston's Jon Lester. The Sox, who had already spoiled one Rays party by winning Game 6, took a 1-0 lead in the first when Dustin Pedroia homered on Garza's sixth pitch. The Rays, who'd gone nine-up, nine-down, tied it in the fourth when Evan Longoria doubled with two outs to score Carlos Pena.

They opened the fifth with the makings of another rally, as Aybar doubled into the leftfield corner, and Dioner Navarro followed with a ground ball that shortstop Alex Cora gloved in the hole but couldn't make a play on, putting Rays on first and second.

Unlikely combination

Baldelli — who had only rejoined the Rays in late August due to the latest bout with his unusual illness — had never done anything against Lester. He'd struck out in his three regular-season at-bats, was 0-2 (with another strikeout) in Lester's Game 3 start, and fanned his first time in Game 7 for a career mark of 0-for-6 with 5 Ks.

"Every at-bat was really tough," Baldelli said. "I was trying a number of different things to try to get something going."

Before Game 7, Baldelli actually went to the Rays stats and video analysts for help. Their data showed Lester was dominating him with inside cutters, so Baldelli decided to back off the plate that night to give himself more room to handle the inside pitch. But when Lester adjusted, kept the ball away and struck him out in the third, Baldelli was at a loss. "I'm thinking, I don't know about this new plan," he said.

Aybar had been a big contributor for the Rays that season, filling in for Longoria at third base and delivering a series of big hits, but he wasn't a guy they wanted to count on for his speed. As third-base coach Tom Foley said in recalling the play: "I remember Willy on second, which gives you heartburn."

And here's the pitch ...

Baldelli swung and missed at Lester's first pitch, then lofted the second deep to left but foul. After Baldelli stepped out of the box, and catcher Jason Varitek went to the mound for a quick chat, Lester came inside again.

Baldelli made contact, a ground ball that bounced first on the infield turf and then the dirt but went through the hole between short and third. "I didn't get the good part of the bat on the ball," Baldelli said. "But it was the first time I actually put a ball in play decent off him."

The key was how and where he hit it — hard enough to get through the infield, but soft enough that leftfielder Jason Bay, who'd been playing deep, had to come in to field it.

"I just hit it where they weren't," Baldelli says now with a laugh. "I had really good aim."

Said manager Joe Maddon: "A seven-hopper in the right spot."

Aybar wasn't a fast runner, but took aggressive secondary leads, the steps a runner takes as the pitch is thrown. He broke as soon as Baldelli hit the ball, but clearly wasn't expecting to score as he ran straight to third, rather than arcing for a turn, and slowed as he approached the base.

Foley had other ideas, however, given that Aybar was approaching the bag before Bay got to the ball and waved him home with no hesitation. "Once it rolled through, he's got to go," Foley said. "You hope the guy doesn't get off a real strong throw and it's not on line."

Bay didn't make much of a throw, bouncing it at third baseman Kevin Youkilis, and Aybar slid in well ahead of the ball, jumping up, clapping his hands then pointing skyward.

"Willy scores on a base hit to left," Maddon said. "Things are working in your favor at that point."

Who knew?

The game is typically remembered for two signature moments: then-rookie David Price coming in to strike out Boston's J.D. Drew with the bases loaded in the eighth inning, and 2B Akinori Iwamura dashing to second base for the final out and then leaping in the air.

Neither may have ever happened had Baldelli not delivered, though at the moment no one knew it would be the most significant run they ever scored.

But looking back now, Baldelli says, he must have known something then, based on his unusual reaction, which he wasn't aware of until he watched a video replay months later.

"It was one of the few times I'd actually gotten a hit and actually smiled on the field," he said. "I smile in the dugout a lot and occasionally and I might smirk on the field, but I don't smile on the field. And I did. ... I don't know why. I didn't consciously know anything. But for some reason, I smiled."

Send your memories of the play to sports@tampabay.com.

Willy Aybar scored from second base on Rocco Baldelli's fifth-inning single to give the Rays a 2-1 lead in Game 7 of the 2008 American League Championship Series on Oct. 19 at Tropicana Field, and the Rays went on to win 3-1 and advance to the World Series for the first, and thus far only, time in franchise history.

Ending the futility

After 10 seasons of futility and a reputation as one of MLB's worst franchises, on and off the field, the Rays made a stunning worst-to-first run that turned Tampa Bay into a crazed baseball area. The season was filled with big moments, topped by Dan Johnson's dramatic pinch-hit tying homer in a key September game at Boston and Fernando Perez's daring dash in the 11th inning to win Game 2 and even the ALCS. But Baldelli's hit and Aybar's run was the most significant because of what it led to, a berth in the World Series.

Setting the scene

The game, as expected, was shaping up as a pitchers' duel between the Rays' Matt Garza and the Red Sox's Jon Lester. The Sox, who had already spoiled one Rays party by winning Game 6, took a 1-0 lead in the first when Dustin Pedroia homered on Garza's sixth pitch. The Rays, who had gone nine-up, nine-down, tied it in the fourth when Evan Longoria doubled with two outs to score Carlos Peña.

They opened the fifth with the makings of another rally, as Aybar doubled into the leftfield corner, and Dioner Navarro followed with a ground ball that shortstop Alex Cora gloved in the hole but couldn't make a play on, putting Rays on first and second.

Unlikely combination

Baldelli, who had only rejoined the Rays in late August due to the latest bout with his unusual illness, had never done anything against Lester. He had struck out in his three regular-season at-bats, was 0-for-2 (with another strikeout) in Lester's Game 3 start, and struck out his first time in Game 7 for a career mark of 0-for-6 with five strikeouts.

"Every at-bat was really tough," Baldelli said. "I was trying a number of different things to try to get something going."

Before Game 7, Baldelli actually went to the Rays stats and video analysts for help. Their data showed Lester was dominating him with inside cutters, so Baldelli decided to back off the plate that night to give himself more room to handle the inside pitch. But when Lester adjusted, kept the ball away and struck him out in the third, Baldelli was at a loss. "I'm thinking, I don't know about this new plan," he said.

Aybar had been a big contributor for the Rays that season, filling in for Longoria at third base and delivering a series of big hits, but he wasn't a guy they wanted to count on for his speed. As third-base coach Tom Foley said in recalling the play: "I remember Willy on second, which gives you heartburn."

Here's the pitch ...

Baldelli swung and missed at Lester's first pitch, then lofted the second deep to left but foul. After Baldelli stepped out of the box, and catcher Jason Varitek went to the mound for a quick chat, Lester came inside again.

Baldelli made contact, a ground ball that bounced first on the infield turf and then the dirt but went through the hole between short and third. "I didn't get the good part of the bat on the ball," Baldelli said. "But it was the first time I actually put a ball in play decent off him."

The key was how and where he hit it; hard enough to get through the infield but soft enough that leftfielder Jason Bay, who had been playing deep, had to come in to field it.

"I just hit it where they weren't," Baldelli says now with a laugh. "I had really good aim."

Said Rays manager Joe Maddon: "A seven-hopper in the right spot."

Aybar wasn't a fast runner, but he took aggressive secondary leads, the steps a runner takes as the pitch is thrown. He broke as soon as Baldelli hit the ball but clearly wasn't expecting to score as he ran straight to third, rather than arcing for a turn, and slowed as he approached the base.

Foley had other ideas, however, given that Aybar was approaching the bag before Bay got to the ball and waved him home with no hesitation. "Once it rolled through, he's got to go," Foley said. "You hope the guy doesn't get off a real strong throw and it's not on line."

Bay didn't make much of a throw, bouncing it at third baseman Kevin Youkilis, and Aybar slid in well ahead of the ball, jumping up, clapping his hands then pointing skyward.

"Willy scores on a base hit to left," Maddon said. "Things are working in your favor at that point."

Who knew?

The game is typically remembered for two signature moments: then-rookie David Price coming in to strike out Boston's J.D. Drew with the bases loaded in the eighth inning, and Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura dashing to the bag for the final out and then leaping in the air.

Neither may have ever happened had Baldelli not delivered, though at the moment no one knew it would be the most significant run they ever scored.

But looking back now, Baldelli says, he must have known something then, based on his unusual reaction, which he wasn't aware of until he watched a video replay months later.

"It was one of the few times I'd actually gotten a hit and actually smiled on the field," he said. "I smile in the dugout a lot and occasionally and I might smirk on the field, but I don't smile on the field. And I did. … I don't know why. I didn't consciously know anything. But for some reason, I smiled."

Send your memories of the play to sports@tampabay.com.

.fast facts

Topkin's top five

Times staff writer Marc Topkin ranks the five greatest scores in Rays history:

1. Willy Aybar scores from second on Rocco Baldelli's single to give the Rays a 2-1 lead over Boston in the fifth inning of Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS; they win 3-1 and advance to the World Series for the first time. Oct. 19. 2008, at Tropicana Field.

2. Fernando Perez, above left, celebrating with Carlos Peña, scores from third on B.J. Upton's sac fly to shallow right in the 11th inning to give the Rays a 9-8 win in Game 2 and even the 2008 ALCS as they head to Boston. Oct. 11, 2008, at Tropicana Field.

3. Dan Johnson's pinch-hit tying homer, in his unexpected, flight-delayed Tampa Bay debut, in the ninth inning off Boston's Jonathan Papelbon keeps the Rays from dropping out of first place. Sept. 9, 2008, at Fenway Park.

4. Wade Boggs' home run off Cleveland's Chris Haney for his 3,000th hit, and his entertaining romp around the bases and kissing of home plate, was arguably the first run scored in franchise history that actually meant something. Aug. 7, 1999, at Tropicana Field.

5. Kansas City's Jay Keppinger scores on Esteban German's 12th-inning single to give the Royals a 10-8 win over Detroit on the final day of the 2006 season and a 62-100 record, thus giving the Rays, who finished 61-100, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft that they used to select David Price.

On the Web: Rank these five scores in the order of your preference in an interactive poll at tampabay.com/specials/2011/sports/greatest-point-ever.



Greatest point ever

The St. Petersburg Times is ranking the top scoring plays in the history of the area pro teams and college football programs:

Sunday: BucsWednesday: USF

. Today: RaysThursday: Florida

Tuesday: LightningFriday: Florida State

On the Web

Follow the greatest point series, including past stories, polls and video, check back throughout the week at tampabay.com/specials/2011/sports/greatest-point-ever.

Greatest points ever: Rocco Baldelli drives in Willy Aybar to lift Tampa Bay Rays into 2008 World Series 07/10/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 12, 2011 3:54pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...