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Hey, America: What do you think of the Rays now?

John Romano: On Tuesday night, the Rays had the national baseball stage to themselves and demonstrated they are more than a cute, resilient story.
Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Willy Adames (1) celebrates his solo homer in the fourth inning against the Houston Astros in Game 4 of the American League Division Series Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019 in St. Petersburg. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Willy Adames (1) celebrates his solo homer in the fourth inning against the Houston Astros in Game 4 of the American League Division Series Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019 in St. Petersburg. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Oct. 9
Updated Oct. 9

ST. PETERSBURG – When the week began, they were not deemed worthy of prime time.

They had flown from Toronto to Oakland to Houston and back home to Tampa Bay in six days, and Major League Baseball’s TV and scheduling aficionados decided the Rays should set their alarms early to be the opening act in a four-pack of playoff games on Monday.

After all, the Tampa Bay Rays aren’t sexy. They’re not hip. They may not even be the Tampa Bay Rays much longer.

And yet, 48 hours later, they are threatening to pull off one of the greatest October upsets imaginable.

A bunch of anonymous relievers, a supposedly non-lethal lineup and a manager not named Joe Maddon combined to beat Justin Verlander and the Houston Astros 4-1 in Game 4 of the American League Division Series Tuesday night.

So what do you think of the Rays now, America?

"I’m sure a lot of people are surprised. I promise you the guys in this clubhouse aren’t surprised,'' said centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier. "We’re not a big market team. We don’t have the most popular guys compared to other teams out there. I always say we have a ton of above average, quality players making names for themselves.''

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the box scores, this is a pretty interesting little ballclub. Pretty darned good, too.

Or did you not see Willy Adames Tuesday night?

The Rays 24-year-old shortstop hit his second home run in as many games, and uncorked one of the sweetest relay throws you’ll ever see to cut down Jose Altuve at the plate and snuff out Houston’s most promising rally.

How about Tommy Pham? Have you caught his postseason act?

Pham is what passes for a veteran star in Tampa Bay’s lineup, even though his $4.1 million salary is roughly a quarter of what Astros left fielder Michael Brantley makes. Except Pham is hitting .429 in the playoffs and Brantley is hitting .125.

And I bet you don’t even know who Kevin Cash is.

The Tampa native is one of the longest-tenured – and at 41, still one of the youngest – managers in the game. He’ll probably finish behind Rocco Baldelli and Aaron Boone in Manager of the Year voting, but Cash won 96 games with baseball’s smallest payroll. And in Game 4 Tuesday night, he deftly managed a parade of relievers over nine innings to shut down a lineup of stars.

“We’re good. Everybody uses the word resilient and that’s great but we’re also very good,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “You can use that word resilient over and over and in a way it’s kind of knocking us. The truth is this is a very good team.”

The Rays finally hit prime time by default Tuesday night after the Yankees graciously swept the Twins and decided to take the night off. And so what a greater swath of America finally got to see was a team that doesn’t just defy expectations but also, at times, description.

There is really no rational explanation for how the Rays have the American League’s top seed sweating bullets this morning. The Astros smoked the Rays in Games 1 and 2 in Houston, and looked like they were just getting warmed up. Verlander and Cole had combined to throw 14.2 shutout innings with 23 strikeouts in the first two games, and were poised to come back for Games 4 and 5.

When the Rays broke out the bats and home runs in Game 3, it seemed like an appropriate coda for the season. They could walk away from 2019 knowing they had played six months of great baseball, had won a wild card game and had refused to go down gently against Houston.

And then Tampa Bay came out and did it again on Tuesday night.

“Charlie Morton changed the environment in Game 3,” Cash said. "And we come back today and it was just an incredible atmosphere. Unbelievable."

Three days ago, the upper deck at Tropicana Field looked like the auditorium of a down-on-its-luck middle school.

The stairs appeared as if they hadn’t been painted in years, and some of the seats were covered in dust. If you looked closely enough, you could see the air conditioning gently blowing cobwebs underneath the second row in Section 301. These were among the loneliest seats in Major League Baseball.

The upper deck at the Trop was closed for the 2019 regular season, and was not often populated before that.

Yet for the past two nights, the 300 level was alive again with happy, screaming, long-lost Tampa Bay baseball fans.

You want to know how good the 2019 Rays are?

That’s how good.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.


ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Tampa Bay Rays Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg, right, with U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, during a Rays playoff game against the Houston Astros in October. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
    Also, a peek into their thought process on why standing pat is bad, as was Pat Burrell, and other things they’ve learned.
  2. Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg talks with reporters during a briefing at the Winter Meetings in San Diego, California on December 10, 2019. [WILL VRAGOVIC  |  Tampa Bay Rays]
    Principal owner says staying full time in Tampa Bay remains unlikely, so the focus remains on sharing games with Montreal.
  3. Agent Scott Boras faced a lot of questions from reporters at the winter meetings on Tuesday. [MARC  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Game’s top agent says Rays have been unappreciated in their market. Also, they should think of adding a veteran starter.
  4. Tampa Bay Rays Tommy Pham (29) works to clean out his locker area for end of season on Oct. 11. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Whatever concerns the Padres had about Pham’s elbow apparently were resolved as the deal goes through as planned.
  5. Rays manager Kevin Cash had more than a few points to make during his Q&A session on Monday in San Diego. [MARC TOPKIN  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Beyond the opener, Mike Zunino, Tommy Pham and Brendan McKay, here’s the rest of the story from Cash in San Diego.
  6. Yonny Chirinos may join the Rays' rotation full time next season, possibly signaling an end to consistent use of the opener. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
    Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough did well enough that the Rays could go back to using five traditional starters.
  7. The Rays' Tommy Pham played through elbow injuries at the end of last season. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times]
    Padres say they are still “working through” some things with results of physical, likely concerning his elbow.
  8. Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow (20), right, and Tampa Bay Rays catcher Travis d'Arnaud (37) walk back to the dugout after the first inning in Game 5 of the American League Division Series Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019 in Houston. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
    The cheating scandal and sign-stealing investigation will be a popular topic during this week’s winter meetings.
  9. Steven Souza Jr. hit 30 home runs for the Rays in the 2017 season while improving his defense and baserunning, but hit only .239. [Tampa Bay Times]
    Talented and entertaining outfielder is a free agent after being non-tendered by D-backs, and Rays do need some help.
  10. Could a reunion with outfielder Steven Souza Jr., shown during a 2016 game, be possible for the Rays?
    What they’ve done so far, what they’re looking to do, Hall of Fame possibilities, and rumblings.
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