After 172 games, you think you know a team.
You watch them grow, you watch them fall. You were there when they danced at their first parties, and you were there when they scuffled with their playmates. You know the flash of their smile, and you know the grit of their teeth.
By now, you know the cut of the Tampa Bay Rays' jib, all right. And at a time such as this perhaps you, too, have a question you would like to ask:
Who, exactly, are these guys?
Can these really be the Rays that Tampa Bay has come to know over the 2008 baseball season? Have those guys been body-snatched? Are they having flashbacks to the old days?
For whatever the reason, is a simple DNA test too much to ask?
There was something unfamiliar in the Rays' 4-2 loss to the Boston Red Sox on Saturday night, was there? It wasn't so much that the Rays lost their second straight game to the Red Sox. It wasn't even that they forced a go-on-or-go-home scenario for tonight's Game 7.
The surprising thing was that the Rays didn't look quite like the Rays. If you look back over the last 12 innings, their greatest strengths seem to be slipping away. The defense that was the best in the American League has turned spotty. The bullpen that slammed doors in the face of opponents seems out of rhythm. The newfound hitting prowess is suddenly lost again.
And so it goes. The homefield advantage took another night off. The cowbells had silencers on them. As for all that resiliency you heard about before Game 6? Well, you're going to hear about it before Game 7, too.
Glance at the scoreboard, and really, a 4-2 loss to the Red Sox isn't that much of a reason to vex. Hey, no one said the Red Sox weren't a good team.
The problem here wasn't the loss. The problem was that the Rays didn't play very well, and because of it, they lost another chance to put Boston away. It wasn't as good a chance as, say, Thursday night's 8-7 tumble down the stairs, but it was enough for teeth-gnashing.
For instance, where was that Rays offense that had scored 38 times in the previous four games? Granted, Boston pitcher Josh Beckett should score high on guts for his performance, but his velocity wasn't enough to frighten anyone. His velocity was a hittable 91 mph or so, and the Rays let him get away with it.
For instance, the Rays' own starting pitcher, James Shields, wasn't as sharp as you might have expected. Shields only went 52/3 innings, giving up nine hits and three walks. Worse, he struggled to keep the ball in the park. After the Rays took a 1-0 lead in the first on B.J. Upton's home run, Shields gave up the tying home run to Kevin Youkilis only four pitches later. And after the Rays tied the score at 2 in the fifth, it took only 11 pitches before Jason Varitek's homer returned the lead to Boston.
"I struggled with fastball command all night,'' Shields said. "I didn't do a very good job when we had the lead or when we were tied.''
For instance, the bullpen suddenly does not instill the confidence it did for much of the season. Oh, it wasn't bad on Saturday the way it had been on Thursday. But does it look still look like the every-piece-fits unit of the regular season?
For instance, there was more shaky defense by the Rays. Jason Bartlett's throwing error led to Boston's fourth run, and Gabe Gross again seemed to struggle in rightfield. Couple that with Evan Longoria's key error in Thursday night's game, and suddenly, the defense doesn't feel quite as dependable as usual.
For the record, Joe Maddon doesn't buy into this. Except for the hitting, he thought the Rays played well enough to win. And he seems fine with tonight's prospects.
Still, after 172 games, you have come to expect more from the Rays than this. You expect power from the starting pitcher, and efficiency from the defense, and killer instinct from the hitters. You expect the bunch of them to defend the home turf. This time, it was like watching Superman fall off a building. The things that got the Rays to the ALCS abandoned them.
More than anything, that's the concern over tonight's Game 7. Yeah, it should be a delicious piece of sports history for Tampa Bay. It should be electric and magical and memorable.
Of course, it wouldn't hurt if the right guys made it to the park, would it?
Game 6 still magic for Red Sox
Saturday night marked the eighth time that the Red Sox were trailing 3-2 after the first five games in a best-of-seven or best-of-nine postseason series. They improved to 8-0 in Game 6 showdowns.
Series Opponent Result Series result
1903/WS Pittsburgh Won on road Won in 8
1967/WS St. Louis Won at home Lost in 7
1975/WS Cincinnati Won at home Lost in 7
1986/LCS California Won at home Won in 7
2003/LCS New York Won on road Lost in 7
2004/LCS New York Won on road Won in 7
2007/LCS Cleveland Won at home Won in 7
2008/LCS Tampa Bay Won on road ??????
Best when pressed
The best records in postseason elimination games:
Team Rec Pct.
Marlins 4-0 1.000
Brewers 5-2 .714
Red Sox* 22-11 .667
Mariners 7-4 .636
* Have won nine straight ALCS elimination games