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Tampa Bay Rays extend dramatic, roller coaster season with playoff clincher

Your hands tend to shake a little more than they once did. Your blood pressure feels like an oil rig. You have less hair than you did at the start at the season, your fingernails look like chew toys, and your voice is gone from yelling at the manager.

Congratulations, Rays fans.

You survived.

Barely.

You have made it. You are going to the playoffs, where once again, the Tampa Bay Rays will attempt to kill you. The middle relief will wreck your stomach, and the rotation will fray your nerves, and the hitting will take years off your life.

The playoffs.

You can't wait, can you?

Such is the thrill of the postseason. After looking at all the batters as they looked at all the third strikes, after enduring all of the home runs allowed, the Rays have finally clinched their second, and their most difficult, postseason berth.

This time, making it to the playoffs was a chore, wasn't it? It has been 182 days, and the Rays have thrown 22,613 pitches and faced 23,915 and struck out 1,244 times. You have seen Joe Maddon use so many lineups — 125 in 156 games — you wondered if he thinks he is doing a jigsaw puzzle. You have watched five games of being one-hit or less, the only team since 1920 to do so. You have seen a team that somehow might set records for the lowest average and the most runs in franchise history. Try to figure that out.

For months now, it has been as if this team has dragged you across hot coals and broken glass on a thousand-mile journey. A few miles back, there was barbed wire. Maybe a few sand spurs. And snakes. Lots of snakes.

By its nature, baseball is the most torturous of sports to watch, a daily assault on your senses. It is a game of failure, where even the best players get more outs than hits and the best teams have more scoreless innings than not. It is a daily assault on your frustration level. Still, this seemed like a rougher ride than most.

Remember the 2008 playoff season? Ha, 2008 was a stroll in the park by comparison. Back then, winning was new and fresh, and the Yankees were sleeping, and the nation kept expecting the Rays to come back to earth. Bless them, they never did. Not until the World Series, anyway.

This year? This year was about expectations and expletives. It was like being 20 feet underwater with only 19 feet of oxygen. It was a runaway stagecoach of a season, a mad, frantic tangle of ups and downs and loops and whirls. Just when the Rays convinced you they would never get another hit, they would make one more run at the Yankees. It was like one of those harrowing, out-of-control movie chases, and after all of the twisting and turning, the team has arrived at the proper destination.

The playoffs.

Pretty cool, huh?

Maybe, just maybe, that made it the sweetest ride of them all. For all of your frustrations, despite the fact no one seemed to enjoy the ride, the Rays get to keep playing.

For all the health risks involved, you can admit this: This team also took your breath away. The Rays have been dazzling at times, spectacular at others. You have seen Carl Crawford spinning around the bases in what might be the finest farewell imaginable, and David Price chase Cy Young, and Evan Longoria take another step toward stardom. You have seen a no-hitter by Matt Garza, and the late-inning death glare by Rafael Soriano, and unforgettable moments by unsung players such as Dan Johnson, Matt Joyce and Reid Brignac. Yeah, your palm is probably sore from all the high fives, too.

Enjoy this, because the harsh truth is that we do not know if this will ever happen again, or when. Baseball is the most difficult sport in which to reach the playoffs, and the AL East is the most difficult division from which to do it, and the Rays' need to control costs makes their odds that much greater. As of next year, that payroll will be stripped for parts, which means the winning is less likely, which means the buzz will be less noticeable.

All along, we have known that. All along, there has been more of a right-now fabric to this team than any in professional sports. No one around here has tomorrow, and except for the past three seasons, no one cares about yesterdays. What you have is today, and a suggestion that you should enjoy it.

For the Rays, and for those who follow them (usually with a remote control in their fists), this should be remembered as a most gratifying season. Seldom has a team maximized its roster as much.

Let's face it. This team cannot hit a fly with a swatter. If you remember, the 2008 team didn't hit much, either, but compared to this team, that one was Murderer's Row. Back in 2008, Carlos Peña hit 48 points higher. Dioner Navarro hit 98 points higher. B.J. Upton hit 33 points higher. Jason Bartlett hit 27 points higher. This team will end up with fewer home runs and a lower average than that one. It is on pace to finish with 1,288 strikeouts, which would set a record for a playoff team.

This team never discovered its designated hitter, only that it wasn't Pat Burrell or Hank Blalock. It hasn't settled on a rightfielder. Shoot, no one in this lineup can even act his way to first base like, for instance, Derek Jeter.

On the other hand, this team has the kind of pitching that can make opposing batters look bad, too. It has great arms to start the game and great arms to finish. True, it can get a little dodgy in the sixth and seventh, where the bullpen has been made up of matchups and mishmash. Lately, even the starting pitching has caused a few worry lines itself.

For all of it, the team flourished. The Rays walked (leading the league in bases on balls), they ran (leading in steals) and they played defense. They approached games like a factory worker, and because of it, they have gone head-to-head with the New York Yankees and their pinstriped wallets for a season.

Say what you want about how far ahead of the Yankees you think the Rays should be, but first, do this. Compare the Rays and Yankees head-to-head, and tell me where you think the Rays have the edge. Leftfield? Yes. Third base? Maybe a push. Where else?

Yes, this was a keeper of a season. The Rays took the 21st-ranked payroll and the 22nd-ranked attendance, and they have turned it into the best record in baseball.

Now? Now comes the sweet afterlife of the regular season.

The playoffs.

Not bad, huh?

Remember what a hoot this was back in '08? Remember the way a town fell in love with a team? Remember the atmosphere in the Trop? Remember the buzz in the area? The Rays were the best thing about Tampa Bay then.

It's about to be that way again. You are about to live from one pitch to another, from one game to the next. This team is going to grab hold of your heart, and from time to time, it's going to squeeze as hard as it can. There will be moments, good or bad, that you will discuss for a lifetime.

The playoffs have been clinched.

Perhaps you should see your doctor before they begin.

Matt Garza sprays fans with champagne as he celebrates after the Rays beat the Baltimore Orioles 5-0 Tuesday night to clinch a playoff spot.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Matt Garza sprays fans with champagne as he celebrates after the Rays beat the Baltimore Orioles 5-0 Tuesday night to clinch a playoff spot.

Tampa Bay Rays extend dramatic, roller coaster season with playoff clincher 09/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 29, 2010 2:01pm]

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