ST. PETERSBURG — It was, in a lot of ways, the perfect party. Loud, festive, full of good times.
And then, wouldn't you know it, someone forgot to bring the dip.
The American League Championship Series arrived in Tampa Bay on Friday night, and it was everything you could have imagined. The atmosphere was tense, the crowd was loud, and the game went down to the final moments.
All it lacked, from the Rays perspective, was some offense. The Red Sox won, 2-0.
Boston starter Daisuke Matsuzaka threw seven shutout innings and effectively wiped out Tampa Bay's homefield advantage in the ALCS. No matter how much faith you have, no matter how optimistic you may be, there is a real possibility that tonight's Game 2 will be the final game at Tropicana Field in 2008.
Ah, what the heck. You waited this long to reach a league championship series, what's another six innings to wait for a hit?
For the longest time, the Rays looked like a Little League team just learning to use its bats. They sent 16 hitters to the plate in the first four innings, and 11 of them either walked or struck out. Only two balls were even hit out of the infield.
It eventually took 90 pitches, 23 at-bats and 2 hours and 8 minutes, but the Rays finally got their first hit when Carl Crawford led off the seventh with a single. A couple pitches later, Cliff Floyd banged out their second, and the Rays had runners on first and third with no outs. And then one out. And then two outs. And then forevermore.
The Rays do not need to be told, but this is the lesson of the postseason. Every opportunity that passes by is an opportunity that may never come again.
The Red Sox know this. With an assortment of World Series rings cluttering their lockers, they know how much harder it is to breathe the later you get into October.
Frankly, of all the potential disappointments, this was the easiest to predict. The Rays may be the best defensive team in the league, and their pitching staff is certainly the envy of most teams.
But as a group of hitters? The Rays are a bunch of mediocre.
That's not really news. They kinda know it. The Rays were ninth in the AL in runs scored. They were 13th in batting average. Think about it this way: Tampa Bay scored fewer runs in 2008 than it did in '07 when it finished last.
So, yeah, if they were going to get tripped up, the offense likely was going to be the culprit.
The shock is in the details. A week ago, Evan Longoria seemed ready to make the postseason his own. He homered on his first two swings of October and finished Game 1 of the division series with three hits and a walk.
Since then, Longoria is 1-for-16 with eight strikeouts.
You might have guessed it when the ceremonial first pitch looked like some kind of spastic shooting gallery. Honoring the 500 or so original season ticket holders, the team selected 11 of them to throw out the first pitch. The Rays had 11 players crouched in a row to catch the pitches but didn't count on the assortment of scatter-armed throwers. Pitches were flying everywhere, and Edwin Jackson bailed out to avoid getting hit.
But you can forgive the Rays if the night did not go according to their script. The Red Sox have been involved in 143 postseason games since 1903. This is Tampa Bay's fifth since a week ago Thursday.
And if the tension and excitement seemed high last week, it was cranked up another decibel or two on Friday.
"I had trouble sleeping last night, and I've actually been sleeping pretty well since we clinched a spot in this series," team president Matt Silverman said. "So my body knew that something was going to be different today. My mind was racing with all of the preparations that go into this. It's one thing to win the division, and another to win a postseason series, but to be playing for a championship against the Red Sox is a whole other level."
You get lulled by the length of baseball's regular season. You come to learn there is always another pitch, another inning, another game tomorrow. You worry as much about the temperature of the beer as the average of the batter.
Yet it takes only a few minutes of postseason baseball to shatter that reverie. You find yourself on the front of your seat, and at the edge of your nerves. You wonder whether the next mistake will be the one that haunts a franchise for years to come.
You tell yourself that this won't matter. That the Rays have bounced back from tough defeats time and again. You tell yourself that they didn't play all that poorly. That they just ran into a pitcher on an exceptional night.
You tell yourself it is only one loss.
And you try not to think that they may have on three left.