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Tampa Bay Rays rediscover themselves, beat Texas Rangers

Carl Crawford celebrates with Evan Longoria after Crawford blasts a homer against the Rangers during the ninth inning.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Carl Crawford celebrates with Evan Longoria after Crawford blasts a homer against the Rangers during the ninth inning.

ARLINGTON, Texas

As they live and breathe, the Tampa Bay Rays have been rediscovered.

This is who they have been, and this is what they have done, and this is why they are still upright. This is why they have won so often, and this is why they won Saturday night, and this is why they have a chance to win today.

This is the way the Rays play baseball.

Couldn't you swear you have seen it before?

For two games, it was as if the Rays had been body-snatched. They could not pitch and they could not catch and they could not hit. Most of all, they could not win, and they had the look of a team that deserved to be quickly and quietly dispatched by something as important as the postseason.

Saturday night, in one of those measure-them-for-the-coffin kind of games, that changed. The Rays — the old Rays, the fun Rays, the AL East champion Rays — reminded you of why you have spent so many hours watching them this season. They finally showed a bit of life, and they beat back the bullying Texas Rangers 6-3.

And if you enjoyed it, perhaps you should have gotten a load of the white-haired guy in the dugout during the eighth inning.

"That's what it's supposed to look like!" manager Joe Maddon kept screaming into the night. "That's what we're supposed to do!"

Maddon's ebullience is understandable. The Rays finally reminded you of how they won 96 games, of how they outlasted the Yankees, and of how they made it to the postseason to begin with. This is the Rays' formula, using pitching and defense and big hits in big moments in late innings. Good of them to finally remember, was it not?

"It's who we are," Maddon said, standing outside of the visitor's clubhouse. "That's how we've won all year long."

For two games, they tried their best to make you forget. At the most important time of the year, they turned into, well, the Mariners. Or the Indians. Maybe the Pirates. Certainly, they no longer looked like the Rays.

No, it didn't change everything. The Rays are still down 2-1 in the series, and the Rangers are still at home, and the odds are still leaning toward Texas.

Still, staving off the offseason was enough of an accomplishment for Saturday. It earned the team another day. It kept the boxes unpacked. And it allowed the Rays to notice that if they can win today, they get to come home for the deciding Game 5 on Tuesday.

That, too, is a bit of the Rays' DNA. By nature, they are a contrary bunch. When you think the most of them, they will stumble, and when you think they made it to the postseason on a shortcut, they will play a game such as this one.

Where has all of this been? By now, we know the Rays are a bargain-basement team with tiny bats and wide flaws. Still, they have proved how far arms and gloves and a few hits in the right moments can carry a team.

"That's who we are," Maddon said. "Ninety-six wins don't just happen. When things do go badly, they don't cave in, they don't give up."

This time, it was easy to recognize the Rays. Just like old times, they scrapped early, and they scored late, and they outpitched the opposition. Also, they played defense. This was the defense that owner Stuart Sternberg once referred to as "the Tarp" because of the way his team covered the field. Also, because "the '85 Bears" was taken.

Did you see the diving catch by Jason Bartlett in the sixth? At the time, Bartlett looked like a man trying to learn how to fly. He hovered above the infield, perpendicular to the field, as he desperately stretched his left arm toward the ball. Somehow, he reached the ball, and his glove swallowed the danger.

Yeah, you've seen a play or two like that, haven't you?

Did you see the composure by Matt Garza, a pitcher so emotional that you fear his bloodstream may someday catch fire? Once again, just like in '08 against the Red Sox, Garza stood up to the pressure of a win-or-else game. Garza gave up only two runs — only one earned — and allowed his team to stay close enough for its comeback.

Probably, that seemed a bit familiar out of a Rays starter, too.

Did you see Carlos Peña, the first baseman with the shrinking average? Peña knocked in the tying run in the eighth, then sealed things with a two-run homer in the ninth.

If you think back far enough, you probably remember that, too.

Time after time, the Rays looked like the Rays, whether it was Carl Crawford catching everything that took flight or B.J. Upton knocking in a tying run or John Jaso knocking in the go-ahead run or Ben Zobrist back-handing a shot by Vlad Guerrero. Once again, the Rays looked resilient. Once again, they looked dangerous. Once again, they earned your approval.

Clearly, this team was not ready for the offseason. Who can blame them? Ahead, there are only farewells and bad headlines about which player has signed with another team and potential stadiums and slashed payroll. Who wants to think about any of that?

If nothing else, Saturday night's victory gave you that, too.

Today, there is still baseball.

Today, the Rays are still in the postseason.

Today, they still have a chance.

FIGHTERS: Before the must-win, Carlos Peña reminded the Rays they are scrappers and battlers. Sports, 1C

Tampa Bay Rays rediscover themselves, beat Texas Rangers 10/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 9, 2010 11:55pm]
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