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Rays' power surge comes at just right time in ALCS

BOSTON — With the most feared of hitting lineups, there is no room to exhale. With them, the danger goes from the top to the bottom.

The hitters do not walk to the plate. They stalk it, slugger after slugger. They spit, and the outfielders tend to back up. They glower, and infielders say silent prayers. They cock their bats, and pitchers fight the temptation to skip the manager and call for the bullpen themselves.

This is what it is like with the great batting orders. They crackle like displaced electrical wires.

Now that the Tampa Bay Rays have been a powerhouse for, oh, about 72 hours now, perhaps you have noticed.

Without warning, the Rays are lethal. Every bat is a hammer, and every hitter is Thor. Just like that, and Fenway Park seems to need nothing so much as a little higher wall in leftfield, because the historic Monster cannot contain the assault. Outside, on Lansdowne Street, it is raining baseball.

The Big Rays Machine was at again Tuesday night, once again pummeling the Red Sox without mercy. This time, the final score was 13-4. This time, the final image was Tampa Bay with its hands around the necks of the Sox in the ALCS.

Who saw this coming, and who saw how? True enough, the Rays have spent a season proving they are a quality team, and perhaps it does not surprise you that they are one victory away from the World Series.

But like this?

This was like watching slow-pitch. Carl Crawford had five hits. Willy Aybar had five RBIs. Evan Longoria hit another home run. In all the Rays hit three home runs, and they had 14 more hits. Over their last three games, Tampa Bay has 31 runs, 49 hits and 10 homers.

The Rays are the first team in the history of the league championship series to score nine runs in three consecutive games. They are only the fourth team in post-season history to do it.

What in the name of the '27 Yankees is going on here? If you saw the Rays hit this year, you cannot help but search for answers. Did someone buy a crate of bats from the Roy Hobbs tree?

These are the Rays, remember? No one catches the ball the way these guys do, and few teams pitch it as well. But hitting? That's not exactly their deal. They were ninth in runs this season, and they were next to last in average. The best thing you have been able to say about the Rays' hitting this season was that they managed to do it when the game was at its most crucial point.

These days? The guys who are not hitting like Gehrig are hitting like Ruth. After a regular season in which no one on the team hit above .300, the Rays find themselves with six players who are hitting over it.

Just wondering: Once the baseball season gets to the post-season, aren't runs supposed to be like squeezing toothpaste from an empty tube? This hasn't been a playoff. This has been a blastoff.

So how do you explain this? Is it just the natural ebb and flow of hitters? Have the Rays merely gotten hot at the right time?

Possibly. It happens. Rays senior adviser Don Zimmer knows all about that. When he managed the Red Sox back in '78, his team suddenly went cold and lost a 14-game lead to the Yankees. In '89, it was his Cubs who went cold — especially Andre Dawson, who had carried the team — in the late going.

But this isn't just a player or two warming up. This is an entire team flexing its muscles all at once.

Is it that the Rays are healthy? If you look at the hottest Rays — Longoria, B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, Crawford — you cannot help but notice that most of them were hurt this season. Now healthy again, the Rays are better.

"I think health has a lot to do with it," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It seems strange to think that we're getting healthy at this time of year, but it's true."

Are the Red Sox pitchers the cause? Maybe that's part of it. But if you look at the postseason history of Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, and the Rays' history of Tim Wakefield, that doesn't provide the total answer, either.

Is it, perhaps, that the Rays are merely measuring up the moment?

That happens, too. And despite the relatively small sample, you would have to say that Longoria and Upton look as if they are made for the bright lights of October. Put it this way: If it is allowed to notice that Big Papi is hitting like Little Debbie, isn't it allowed to notice this series has some big-time performers, too?

For instance, ponder what Red Sox manager Terry Francona had to say about Upton during his Tuesday news conference.

"I think the surprising thing is that he hit (only) nine during the season, not that he is starting to show power now. He's gotten himself into a feel where if you make a mistake, you have to almost pick it up on the way home."

The answer, as usual, is a blend of a little bit of all of it. Not that the Rays care. When a team is hitting, it doesn't wonder why. It just keeps swinging and circling the bases.

A little more of each, and this team is going to hit its way clear to the World Series.

Rays' power surge comes at just right time in ALCS 10/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 16, 2008 9:43am]

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