PHILADELPHIA — When Eric Hinske swung and missed at strike three at 9:58 p.m. Wednesday, a Rays season that seemed impossible to believe came to a disappointing end as the Phillies instead celebrated an improbable World Series championship.
But as much as the loss defined the cold, odd night in the 46-hour delayed continuation of Game 5, in time, in a matter of hours or days or a week, the season will be remembered, celebrated and archived for what the Rays did accomplish.
"I think right now we just have to take it all in. We lost the World Series — it's not something to be proud about," pitcher James Shields said in the somber clubhouse.
"But the one good thing about it is that we did have an unbelievable Cinderella season. I think in a couple days we're going to look back and go, man, we did something that nobody in the whole entire universe would have thought we'd have done. We shocked the world when we did that."
Their stunning and remarkable turnaround was historic, as they went from the worst record in the majors last season, at 66-96, to a 97-win season and an American League East division title.
They had their first winning season and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, beat the White Sox in the division series, ousted the defending champion Red Sox in the ALCS, winning a tense Game 7 to do so. They were just the second team in history to reach the Series the year after having the worst record, joining the 1991 Braves, but fell three wins short of the championship.
"This has been an incredibly magical season, one that no one ever thought could be possible," Carlos Pena said.
They erased their horrid, embarrassing past by changing the image and perception of the oft-ridiculed franchise. And beyond all that, they energized, captivated and galvanized the Tampa Bay area, proving it to be — at least for a few months — the baseball community it had long been considered but hadn't shown.
"How could you be disappointed in this season and this group of guys?" principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "The one thing that I think that sunk in on me more in the last week that was in the background, was just the way we went about things. They really did it in such the right way. I'm just proud of them."
In their third season under Sternberg's ownership, the Rays expected to be better. But even the most optimistic of them didn't expect this.
"What a season," said Scott Kazmir, who brazenly said the first day of spring training they were good enough to play in October. "To be able to go from worst like that to be in the World Series right here, that is just special."
What they did, with a team of mostly young players, bodes well for future success.
"Obviously you want to win the World Series when you get to this particular juncture," manager Joe Maddon said. "But where we have come from and where we arrived at this particular point is almost unthinkable. To get it done this quickly, it's powerful what we have done this year. And I know from my perspective it's just the beginning."
But it's also significant in how they revised their past.
"We won't be a joke to everybody anymore," said Carl Crawford, the most veteran Ray. "We have established ourselves as a real franchise. It just feels good to know that we're like a real team now."
"I've played on this team for a long time, and I know we were the laughingstock of baseball," said Rocco Baldelli, whose comeback was part of their amazing story. "We come in this year, turn it around and go to the World Series. It's a great feeling. It's rewarding just going through it, having to deal with the tough things, and going as far as we did. We're very proud."
Despite trailing three games to one, and having Game 5 suspended, and then the resumption delayed for another day, the Rays were confident, up until Brad Lidge's last pitch to Hinske, that they were going to at least extend the Series to a Game 6 at Tropicana Field tonight.
"I'll be honest with you, I'm sad, I'm very sad,'' Pena said. "All the way up until that last pitch I thought something good was going to happen for us. My faith did not waver until that last pitch was made. Unfortunately, that's where it ends for us this year.''
It was tough until the end. As the Rays bus pulled away from Citizens Bank Park, hundreds of fans gave them a one-finger goodbye and other rude gestures.
Eventually, they will realize the good in what happened.
"It's a disappointing conclusion to an incredible season," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Obviously right now everybody is hanging their heads a little bit. But by the time we land, these guys have every right to hold their heads high. It's been an amazing season. To get to where we got from where we were last year speaks volumes about the guys in this room. And they should be extremely proud of what they accomplished."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org