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What the Rays are attempting is not normal

John Romano: Tampa Bay is on the brink of history going into Game 5 of the ALDS against the Astros.
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. 10
Updated Oct. 10

HOUSTON — The Astros might not be scared of the Rays, but history ought to be petrified.

This is not an ordinary comeback, nor a run-of-the-mill upset we might be witnessing in the American League Division Series. It could be a dramatic comeback and a major upset potentially combined. And how the heck is history supposed to explain that?

Is it David and Goliath, or the tortoise and the hare? Would we be stunned, or would we be shocked?

And will history have to file it under the Rays or the Expos?

Just to be clear, it’s not supposed to happen. The Astros might be reeling, backtracking and sputtering after losses on Monday and Tuesday, but they’re still the favorites in tonight’s Game 5. They still have Gerrit Cole on the mound, and Houston has not lost one of his starts since the week of the All-Star break.

But history is knocking, nonetheless.

“Don’t ever count us out. Ever,’’ said center­fielder Kevin Kiermaier. “We’re motivated. We’re driven. We want more.’’

So, yeah, about one out of every eight teams that fall behind 0-2 in a best-of-five series ever comes back and wins. And, along with the wild-card game, a victory tonight would mean the Rays have won four elimination games in nine days. That alone would put Tampa Bay in some pretty select company for October surprises.

But it’s still not as dramatic as this:

Teams as good as the Astros just don’t go down this way. They fall short about once a generation.

In baseball’s expansion era (since 1961), only nine other teams have had a winning percentage of .660 or above, like the 2019 Astros. Six of those teams went on to win the World Series. And when one of them loses, it’s usually to another 100-win team. None has ever been eliminated by a team with a winning percentage as low (.593) as Tampa Bay’s.

And none has ever had a single chance to clinch a series, let alone three chances.

“If you’re looking at all of this strictly from an odds standpoint, yeah, this seems improbable, but this is not an ordinary team’’ said Rays third baseman Matt Duffy. “You know we have MLB Network on in here during the day, just like most clubhouses. We see that we don’t get a lot of airtime. And yeah, I think that kind of puts a chip on everybody’s shoulder. We understand the market situation being what it is, and MLB has to cater to bigger audiences, but we have more talent than we get credit for.’’

It’s true, we are a celebrity-obsessed world. A world of television bachelors and Instagram influencers. It’s an era when names are more important than results.

And that’s why outsiders have no frame of reference when it comes to the Rays. There is no recognizable face or simple narrative to hang on to. The stadium is a joke, the biggest stars were traded away, and the backstory of analytics, run prevention and undervalued assets sounds like baseball’s version of avant-garde theater.

Kiermaier described the Rays as a team void of superstars and mega­contracts, but with an inordinately high number of above-average players.

“I think that’s pretty fair,’’ manager Kevin Cash said. “They might not be superstars, but they certainly believe they are.’’

There is a calmness about this team that seems incongruous with its history. They mostly lack pedigree and experience. Outfielder Guillermo Heredia seems to be the go-to motivator in the clubhouse, and he isn’t even on the active postseason roster.

First baseman Ji-Man Choi is everyone’s favorite teammate, and he barely speaks English.

It’s a loose group that doesn’t seem to understand the mess they were in earlier this week, nor the potential magnitude of what they’re trying to accomplish tonight.

“I could see how people would say this is unlikely from the outside looking in. I’ll give you that,’’ said closer Emilio Pagan. “But we know we’re good. We don’t back down from a challenge. We play confident, but I don’t think we play mad.

“We’re not angry that people don’t think we’re supposed to be here. We just like showing people that we’re good.’’

If history does call tonight, knowing these guys, they’d let it go to voicemail.

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

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