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Rays defied historically long odds in their breakthrough season

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Dioner Navarro waits in the on-deck circle at Tropicana Field on Thursday night. The Rays lost a two-run lead in the ninth inning and fell to Minnesota 11-8 despite rookie Evan Longoria’s three home runs.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Dioner Navarro waits in the on-deck circle at Tropicana Field on Thursday night. The Rays lost a two-run lead in the ninth inning and fell to Minnesota 11-8 despite rookie Evan Longoria’s three home runs.

ST. PETERSBURG — It is not often you get to plan ahead for a miracle.

To hold a child on your lap and explain the rarity of an event about to pass. To joke with the neighbors across the fence, and ask if they, too, will be watching when the moment arrives.

Finally, the countdown is days, perhaps hours, from completion. From the moment when the miracle of the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays becomes official.

As far as walk-on-water quality, I suppose this is a little short of divine status. But, in baseball terms, these Rays are about as remarkable as it gets. When they clinch a postseason berth at some point in the coming days it will be among the most unlikely playoff runs in the history of the game.

If you are not yet convinced, consider the various ways to measure it:

As a team going from the worst record in the majors one season to the playoffs in the next? It's only been done once before in more than a century of baseball.

As a team with a $43-million payroll making the playoffs ahead of a division rival, the Yankees, with a $209-million payroll? No other team has ever overcome such a large discrepancy.

As a team without a .300 hitter, without a 15-game winner, without a 100-RBI slugger, still leading the American League East going into the final week of the season? It is almost inconceivable.

"A year like this might not ever come along again. You hope it does, but you never know, and that's why you have to enjoy it right now," said Rays senior baseball adviser Don Zimmer, now in his 60th year of pro ball. "This is probably the most amazing club I've ever been a part of. The biggest surprise I've ever been around, no question."

Good fortune is never sweeter than when it arrives unexpectedly. Like buying a winning lottery ticket except, in this case, you wait, day after day for six long months, for the final confirmation.

As far back as spring training, there was little doubt this team was going to be better than ever. The players were maturing, the payroll was growing and the bar was about as low as it can get.

A cynic could have made the case this was the sorriest excuse for an expansion franchise baseball had ever fielded. Tampa Bay's winning percentage of .399 was the worst, after a decade of play, of any expansion team in history. The 10 consecutive seasons of 90 losses or more was a first in American League history.

So, yes, it was not going to be difficult for the '08 Rays to separate themselves from the humiliations of the past. But who could have imagined the turnaround would be quite so dramatic? That the Yankees would have their worst season in more than a dozen years, at the same time the Rays were making their ascension?

That the same five pitchers would be healthy enough to start more than 95 percent of Tampa Bay's games? That low-radar acquisitions such as Eric Hinske, Gabe Gross, Willy Aybar and Dan Johnson would all play major roles at one time or another during the season? That the trade of Delmon Young for Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza would prove to be, arguably, the steal of the winter?

Life is rarely this perfect. And baseball almost never is.

"When you grab hold of that feeling, and you get on a roll and you start believing in yourselves, it doesn't matter what anybody else says," said Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire, who was a coach on the last AL team to go from worst to first, the 1991 Twins. "You come to the ballpark, and you know you're going to win every day. Everybody is a part of it; somebody different every day.

"I've watched (the Rays) all year long, and that's what they look like. Every day you watch the video and you're seeing somebody different. Honestly, over the last two weeks, I've watched and said, 'Who in the hell is that guy?' That's the way they're playing, and there is no better feeling for an athlete."

There is still work ahead. If, as expected, the Rays clinch a playoff spot this weekend, they still have to hold off the Red Sox to win the AL East. And, though they may be the story of the year in Major League Baseball, their place in history will not be quite so special if they do not reach the World Series.

For then, they could stand alongside a handful of teams whose stories are handed down through generations. The Miracle Braves of 1914, who were in last place on the Fourth of July and came back to win the World Series. The Red Sox of 1967, who became known as the Impossible Dream, reaching the World Series after more than 30 years of coming up short. The Amazing Mets of 1969, who had averaged 105 losses a season for the previous seven seasons before winning the World Series.

The Rays are not there yet. They are not quite amazing. They have not done the impossible. They have not yet pulled off the miracle.

But, heaven knows, it's within their sight.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Rays defied historically long odds in their breakthrough season 09/18/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 20, 2008 12:36am]

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