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Improbable feats by Tampa Bay teams

tom jones' two cents

This evening, USF finds out if it has made the NCAA men's basketball tournament for the third time in its history and first since 1992. If the Bulls make it — and it still could be an iffy proposition considering a resume heavy on bad losses but light on good victories — where would it fit on the most improbable accomplishments in Tampa Bay sports history? You know, when you break it down, we've seen some improbable occurrences around here as our franchises have gone from among the worst in sports history to a Super Bowl, a Stanley Cup and a World Series appearance. So let's say USF's name is called this evening. Here's one opinion on where that would fit on the list of Tampa Bay's most unlikely moments.

1. Rays go to the World Series

This still ranks as the most "holy-mackeral-you've-got-to-be-joking'' moment in Tampa Bay sports history. Looking back now, we could see the pieces being put in place in late 2007, but let's go back to just before the 2008 season started.

The Rays shipped Evan Longoria to the minors. Ace Scott Kazmir was a question mark because of injuries. The rotation appeared shaky. And who knew if closer Troy Percival would hold up? And despite showing flashes in 2007, the Rays still lost 96 games to finish last in the AL East — 30 games behind the Red Sox.

To go .500 would have been a miracle. To win the division, beat the White Sox in the first round of the playoffs and the Red Sox in a seven-game ALCS was ludicrous to even suggest.

The 2008 Rays rank as one of the most stunning teams in sports history, let alone Tampa Bay sports history.

2. USF goes to the NCAA Tournament

Yep, if this happens tonight, it would go down as the second-most improbable accomplishment in Tampa Bay history. Before the season, USF was picked to finish 14th in the 16-team Big East by the conference's coaches. And no one north of Fletcher Avenue or south of Fowler Avenue had a beef with that. Actually, 14th seemed about right for a team that had never had a winning record in the Big East before this season and went 3-15 in conference play a season ago. Going to the NIT seemed unlikely. Going to the NCAA Tournament would be getting-struck-by-lightning-while-holding-a-winning-lottery-ticket stuff.

3. Rays make the 2011 postseason

Going into 2011, the Rays seemed to be reorganizing, saving money and gearing up for the future. Stars Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña and closer Rafael Soriano were not re-signed. Starting pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett were traded. The bullpen was overhauled. When one of the few offseason acquisitions, DH Manny Ramirez, "retired'' after 17 at-bats, the Rays' season appeared to be headed straight for the exit sign.

In the end, it took an epic collapse by the Red Sox and one of the most incredible comebacks in baseball history — not only over the final month, but the final regular-season game — for the Rays to sneak into the playoffs. Looking back, we should not have been all that surprised because of the Rays' remarkable pitching and defense and never-say-quit attitude. Making the playoffs in 2010 was not all that surprising, but 2011 was not supposed to be the Rays' season.

4. USF football gets to No. 2 in the country

Let's be honest. When USF rose to No. 2 in the BCS standings and the AP poll in 2007, it was more of a fluke. It took a perfect storm of upsets for the Bulls to get that high.

After beating No. 17 Auburn in Week 2, the Bulls moved into the AP Top 25 at No. 23. They then beat North Carolina to move to No. 18 and upset No. 5 West Virginia to move to No. 6. Mind you, they moved up thanks to national upsets galore. After beating Florida Atlantic and UCF, the Bulls were 6-0 and soared to No. 2 in the AP and in the first BCS standings as the upsets continued.

This isn't meant to take anything away from USF's accomplishments. But only the wacky college football season allowed USF to get to No. 2. It didn't last, by the way. USF lost three in a row and fell out of the Top 25.

5. The Bucs reach the 1979 NFC Championship Game

The Bucs won 10 games in 1979 — three more than their first three seasons combined. Even so, a year after going 5-11, the Bucs didn't seem like postseason material. It's hard to put a finger on that team. They had a great defense and a hot start — going 5-0 and 7-2. They limped home, finishing the regular season losing three of four. The victory was a 3-0 rain-soaked finale at Tampa Stadium to get them into the playoffs. They beat a decent but not great Eagles team to advance to the NFC title game, where they lost 9-0 to the Rams.

6. Lightning advances to 2010-11 Eastern Conference final

How surprising it was for the Lightning to reach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final last season depends on when you asked the question.

If you asked before the season, most folks would've laughed. The Bolts had missed the playoffs three years in a row. If you asked at the midway point, when the Lightning was in the hunt, most would've shrugged and said, "I still don't think so'' because of shoddy goaltending.

Just before the playoffs, after the Lightning acquired goalie Dwayne Roloson and locked down the No. 5 seed in the East, the prospects of going to the conference final seemed difficult but not impossible. Still, it was hard to believe the Lightning came within a period of reaching the Stanley Cup final.

7. Bucs win the Super Bowl

In the final moments of Tampa Bay's 48-21 victory over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII in January 2003, longtime Bucs fans certainly shook their heads and couldn't believe their sad-sacked franchise had finally reached the top of the NFL mountain.

Those who remember the 0-26 start, "Yucs,'' bags on the heads and coach John McKay's gallows humor could have never imagined the Bucs winning it all. But when you put it into perspective, they weren't really that much of an unlikely Super Bowl champion.

They had made the postseason in the three previous seasons. They went into the Super Bowl season having been knocked out of the playoffs the previous two seasons by losses at Philadelphia. So when the Bucs had to go to Philly for the NFC title game, the odds of them winning seemed long.

Considering that, you might think the Bucs winning it all was improbable. But this team went 12-4 in the regular season, had the best defense in football and playoff experience. They were due to win a Super Bowl.

8. Lightning wins the Stanley Cup

The Lightning had some dog days under coaches Jacques Demers and Steve Ludzik. And if you were to flash back to, say, 1999, it appeared as if the Lightning would never win a Stanley Cup.

But by 2004, you could see the Lightning's run to a championship coming. It made the playoffs in 2002-03 and even won a series.

In 2003-04, the Lightning entered the playoffs as one of the favorites. It was, after all, the No. 1 seed in the East. So in the long (and more often than not sad) history of the Lightning, winning the Cup was a shocker. But really, at the time, it was not that surprising.

Improbable feats by Tampa Bay teams 03/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 10, 2012 7:05pm]
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