ST. PETERSBURG — Perhaps you have heard the story before. It is about long odds and small chances, about questions in the air and comebacks in the night.
Pretty much, it is the story of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Stubborn souls that they are, they keep telling it.
Perhaps you remember how the plot often begins with a shaky start. The usual action sequences are in the middle. After that, there is a bit of angst, just enough to make you wonder. Then, just when you were convinced the ending was going to be all wrong, there is the dramatic finish.
Saturday night the Rays had this to say for themselves: "Ditto."
The Rays scrapped their way back into the ALCS in Game 2 in the most familiar way possible. They fell behind, and they came back. They fell behind, and they came back. They fell behind yet again, and they came back yet again. They stumbled, they staggered, they held on.
By now, you know the tale by heart. The Rays have won 101 games this season, and as near as anyone can tell, about 92 of them have been like this one. Scott Kazmir struggles to find the plate, and the doubts start to hover. Evan Longoria hits a home run. The Red Sox rally. Cliff Floyd hits one to the gulf. The Sox come back. The bullpen keeps things interesting. And then, in the longest, wildest postseason game played in Tropicana Field — more dramatic than all three of the others! — the Rays manage to win.
Same old story.
Brand new series.
When Fernando Perez scored on a sacrifice fly off the bat of B.J. Upton in the bottom of the 11th, the Rays won more than a game. They won a fresh deal. It was terrific stuff, really, filled with rises and fall and twists and turns. Had the Rays lost this game, it would have lingered through the offseason. This win might do the same.
Say this much for the Rays. They seem to like the presence of a priest at their bedside. They seem to enjoy it when the doctor shakes his head over the prognosis. Of all possible views, they seem to like the one from the edge of the cliff the best.
It is impossible to overstate what a loss would have meant for the Rays. It would not have been time to turn out the lights, but it would have been time to at least find the switch.
This Boston team is hard enough to beat without having do it four times in five games. Considering that three of those games would have been at Fenway, which has been a torture chamber for the Rays this season, that would have been too much to ask.
Instead, what we have is a best-of-five series. All the Rays have to do is win one or two at Fenway, then one or two at the Trop, and they are in the World Series. Simple as that.
By now, did you really expect anything else from these Rays? If nothing else this season, the Rays have shown they can take a punch. Did you think they were going to fold up because they lost a game? Did you think they would disappear because their bats disappeared in Game 1? Heck, the Rays' bats have been more erasers than pencils for much of the season. Should it surprise you that they turned lethal on Saturday night?
Okay, okay. That part about knocking the ball out of the building was a bit of a new twist, mainly because Josh Beckett, the big-game pitcher for the Red Sox, was on the mound. Going into the game, Beckett had a 6-2 record and a 2.29 ERA in the postseason.
Saturday, however, Beckett was just another guy throwing souvenirs to the folks in the outfield bleachers. The middle of the Rays' order — Upton, Carlos Pena, Longoria and Floyd — went from Skid Row to Murderer's Row overnight. The more you saw them pound the ball, the more you wanted to congratulate Daisuke Matsuzaka for the way he had handled them the night before. Maybe that game was more impressive than anyone thought.
Odd, isn't it? A night earlier, everyone was trying to evaluate what had gone wrong with the Rays. Was the pressure too great? Had their attitudes changed? David Ortiz, Boston's designated hitter and resident body-language analyst, had suggested that the Rays' dugout didn't have the same look it had during the regular season.
Turns out, the Rays merely lost a game. What? Did you expect them to sweep?
That's part of the Rays' story, too. Even when their closest followers worry, the Rays do not. They are James Bond strapped to Goldfinger's table. They are Luke Skywalker, hanging to the space station by one hand. Somehow, these guys figure they are going to find a way out.
Monday, they get to tell another story. Who knows? Maybe that one will sound familiar, too.