It is a team that has been defined by the way it has beaten the odds against it. It is a team that will be remembered for the way it has overcome the obstacles in front of it.
Never, however, has the deck been stacked so severely against the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays are in trouble.
There is no nice way to say it, no positive spin to place upon it. They are in a hole and they have to climb a mountain, and after that, they have to cross a desert. On one foot.
Even for Team Longshot, it's a lot to overcome. If they can pull this off, even Lazarus would be impressed.
This is the kind of danger a team finds itself in when, in an absolutely crucial situation, it plays an absolutely mediocre game. The Rays lost the fourth game of the World Series 10-2 on Sunday night, a particularly dreadful time to remind people of what the last 11 years of baseball has looked like for Tampa Bay.
You want to talk about odds against Tampa Bay?
-Start with circumstance. The Rays trail the Phillies, three games to one. In the previous 103 World Series, a team came back from 3-1 down to win only six times. None of those have happened since 1985.
Consider the ominous shadow that jutted across Citizens Bank Park late in the evening. From a distance, it looked a lot like Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels, who turned the Rays' bats into chopsticks in Game 1 of the series. Tonight, Hamels takes the mound in a closeout game in front of the rowdy inmates of Philadelphia. Figures: The Rays' greatest comeback would have to come against the guy the Phillies call Hollywood.
-Also, think about the Rays themselves. If indeed those are the Rays. They are not hitting. Their defense does not seem quite as sharp. Their pitching seems a bit off. Not to say the Rays are playing below their best, but not even Chuck LaMar is taking credit for them these days.
In a way, that's the biggest shame of this series. The Rays just don't look like the Rays. Where are the grand comebacks? Where is the timely hitting? Where is the knack of stealing a game that looked lost?
For goodness' sakes, where is a little destiny when you need it?
Granted, the Phillies have something to do with this. They're a fine team. But, no, they aren't as good as the Red Sox. On the other hand, Tampa Bay hasn't been as good as Tampa Bay, either.
The answer: somewhere other than here.
And so we are now down to the final pages of the best story baseball has seen in decades, and the story has taken a turn for the worse. Is this how it ends? Is this whereit ends? On a faraway field in Philadelphia? In front of jeers and taunts?
For the Rays, the task at hand begins simply. First of all, they have to get back to Tropicana Field. Just that.
When you think about it, the point of baseball always has been to somehow find a way to make it back home again. As troublesome as their situation is, they have to make baseball small again. They have to find a way to get to Hamels tonight, to get back to the Trop and their .697 winning percentage.
"I don't like to talk about three in a row,'' said Rays manager Joe Maddon, "but if we could go on three one-game winning streaks, I'd be happy.''
That isn't anything new. Teams that are behind three games to one always talk that way. It has been so since 1903, when the Jimmy Collins of the Boston Pilgrims said it to teammate Cy Young. And sure enough, they pulled it off. On the other hand, 36 of the 42 teams that led 3-1 won the series. The odds are about the same as stepping off a ledge and falling up.
"I know what the odds are,'' said reliever J.P. Howell. "But the odds were, what, 250 to one against us when the seasons started? That means if we played 2008 250 times, we'd only get here once. Our odds are way, way better than that. We just need a good start to a new week.''
Of course, it would do wonders if they could play a little better.
Take the offense, for instance. Are we sure the same guy isn't coaching the Rays and the Bucs?
In the four games of this series, it is as if all of those home runs the Rays hit against Chicago (six) and Boston (16) have come back to haunt them. Against the Phillies, the Rays have been overaggressive at the plate, impatient, chasing pitches outside the zone. In particular, Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria have been disappointing.
After the game, Maddon was asked why his hitters might be in such a funk. Was it the strangeness of the opposing pitchers? Was it that pitching in the World Series is supposed to be good?
Perhaps. But the Phillies are in the World Series, too, and their hitters aren't struggling. Nor are their pitchers.
For goodness' sake, Longoria can't even get a break in the field these days, either. In the first inning, Longoria tagged Jimmy Rollins so hard that he might have broken Rollins' wallet, and Rollins was called safe. If Longoria had tagged him any harder, Rollins could have sued for sexual harassment. As it was, there was good news for Rollins: Not only did he score shortly afterward, but as it turns out, his prostate is in great shape.
As it turned out, the Rays didn't play well enough to make that play matter. Or any other play, for that matter.
Tonight, they try to start their long road back. There are a few stones in the road, as they said.
"We have to get better in a hurry,'' Maddon said.
That's been said a time or two, too. Rarely, it works.
After all, things looked bleak for the Pilgrims, too.