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Phenomenal

BOSTON

Go back to July. Back to the season's first half when David Ortiz suggested the Rays were pretenders, and the American League East race would, as usual, come down to the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Go back to Friday evening. Back to those first few minutes after the Rays lost Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, and Ortiz suggested he saw fear in the eyes of his young opponents.

Now go back to Tuesday evening and Game 4.

"This," Ortiz said, "is crazy."

That's right, the Rays are one game away from advancing to the World Series and challenging the sanity of the entire baseball world. They are also on the verge of becoming the first team in the era of free agency to reach the World Series while having the lowest payroll in the American League.

Tampa Bay won its third consecutive game in the ALCS Tuesday night, humiliating Boston once again at Fenway Park in a 13-4 Game 4 beatdown that almost made you feel sorry for the Red Sox.

Almost.

For, in Tampa Bay, this season is beginning to look like sweet payback after all the years of ridicule. This series is quickly turning into validation after putting up with a lifetime of smug and an earful of snide comments.

"We have a lot of talented players that don't get nearly enough credit for their talent," said executive vice president Andrew Friedman. "So one of the great thrills for me is being able to sit back and watch as America starts to appreciate these guys."

Just remember, this is not a done deal. Ask the 2007 Indians. Or the 2004 Yankees. The last two times the Red Sox won the World Series, they were also down three-games-to-one in the ALCS.

So it's more than just a possibility that the upper deck tarps will be peeled back at Tropicana Field for the first time in three seasons, and there will be a Game 6 on Saturday evening. It's even possible St. Petersburg will see its first Game 7 on Sunday.

But, right now, it feels like the Rays are on the verge of another celebration. One day after sending Red Sox fans to the exits in the eighth inning, the Rays had them storming the aisles in the seventh inning Tuesday night.

"I think it's improbable to every single person who's ever followed baseball, to be honest with you," outfielder Rocco Baldelli said. "We knew we had some good players, but I don't think anyone would have bet — unless they were crazy and threw a wager down after a couple of drinks in Vegas — and bet on us in the preseason."

The scary thing is the Rays seem to be getting better. The pitching and defense are as solid as ever, but now the Rays are turning into the Bay Bombers at the plate.

At times such as this, you forget just how preposterous this story is. How closely this season has resembled a fairy tale. C'mon, compared to the Rays, Cinderella grew up a diva.

Seriously, this stuff just doesn't happen in baseball. Not since free agency arrived in 1976, and salaries became the most relevant statistic in the game.

Look at it this way:

The Rays have the lowest payroll in the AL, and are one victory from winning the pennant. Heck, no team at the very bottom of either the AL or the NL payroll scale had even made it to an LCS before the 2008 Rays arrived. There have been teams near the bottom, and teams with giant disparities, but none quite as poor as Tampa Bay.

That makes these guys more than a cute story. It makes them more than the flavor of the hour. It make the Rays a historical phenomenon.

"I didn't expect to be here today. I didn't expect to be talking to you tonight when the season began," manager Joe Maddon said after Game 3 Monday night. "I thought we were going to be a lot better, but to accelerate the curve the way we have is kind of interesting."

So perhaps this is a good time to dispel some of the silliness surrounding this series.

Like the idea the Red Sox are losing because they are beat up. Certainly, it hurts not having Mike Lowell at third base. And, obviously, Ortiz has not been the same since hurting his wrist.

But may I point out the Rays are playing in the ALCS without closer Troy Percival? And could I further mention the Rays were also the better team in the AL East for the 162-game regular season?

The Rays are not just a hot team. And they are not a fluke. What they appear to be is deeper and more well-rounded than Boston. That's remarkable considering the disparity in resources.

When the Red Sox decided to invest in a Japanese player in 2007, they spent $103-million on Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Rays spent about $12-million on Aki Iwamura.

When the Red Sox went looking for a bat in the free agent market in '07, they signed J.D. Drew to a $70-million contract. That same winter, the Rays spent $800,000 on Red Sox castoff Carlos Pena.

When they needed help this summer, the Red Sox brought in Jason Bay, Mark Kotsay and Paul Byrd in various deals. The Rays acquired Chad Bradford.

So if Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein is a genius with a $137-million payroll, what does that make Friedman and his $43-million allowance?

In other words, if the Red Sox lose, they will have no excuses.

Just the knowledge that they were beaten by a team that appears intent on making history.

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

Lowest payroll

Should the Rays win the American League pennant, they would be the first team in the era of free agency (since 1976) to advance to the World Series with the lowest payroll in the league. Here are the previous World Series teams that ranked lowest in their leagues.

YearTeamLeaguePayroll rankNo. of teams

2003MarlinsNL1416

2007RockiesNL1216

1991BravesNL1012

1990RedsNL912

1981DodgersNL912

1991TwinsAL914

1993PhilliesNL914

Payroll figures from USA Today and baseballchronology.com

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Phenomenal 10/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 16, 2008 1:42pm]
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