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Hello, America. Meet the Rays, your new favorite team

John Romano | The Tampa Bay Rays are a franchise without stars, without money and without pretense, but they have a pennant.
Tampa Bay Rays catcher Mike Zunino celebrates the final out in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. The Rays top the Astros to move on to the World Series.
Tampa Bay Rays catcher Mike Zunino celebrates the final out in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. The Rays top the Astros to move on to the World Series. [ JAE C. HONG | AP ]
Published Oct. 18, 2020|Updated Oct. 18, 2020

They gathered behind the mound, doing the familiar dance of victors.

And in the first moments of a celebration, with pitcher Tyler Glasnow holding a trophy aloft and players clothed in their championship T-shirts, they were almost indistinguishable from one another.

When you think about it, that is precisely how the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays should always be remembered. Arm in arm, side by side, forever moving in unison.

For if there was one characteristic that defined the Rays more than any other it was that they were always better together.

And so, yes, the franchise without stars, without money and without pretense, finally has something in its possession that will set it apart from every other team in this year of a worldwide pandemic:

The American League pennant.

Live it up Tampa Bay. Just 19 days after the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, your Rays are going to the World Series. They withstood one of the most furious comebacks in postseason history to beat the Astros 4-2 in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series Saturday night.

“If (baseball fans) don’t know their names by now, they better learn them,” centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said during the on-field trophy presentation. “Because we’ve got some boys who can play.”

Even their near-collapse eventually revealed the special quality of this group:

The Rays are the first team in MLB history to blow a 3-0 series lead and still come back to win in seven games. And they did it against an Astros team that had recently won Game 7s in the ALCS and World Series.

Think about the pressure. Think about the anxiety. Think about the ESPN documentary about the 2004 Red Sox coming back from an 0-3 deficit to beat the Yankees, and the possibility of a sequel in the works.

“I don’t know if I went to (sleep) last night. It was tough, there was no doubt. A lot of anxiety,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Believe me, we’ve all watched Four Days in October. I didn’t want to see it again.”

It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t without moments of panic. For the second game in a row, Cash pulled a starting pitcher with a shutout going in the middle innings. In Game 6 with Blake Snell, it was justified but didn’t work. In Game 7 with Charlie Morton, it was mystifying but managed to end happily.

And, as if on cue with this team, the offensive stars were a pair of guys who were on no one’s radar barely a month ago. Randy Arozarena, who wasn’t on the active roster in late August, hit his seventh home run of the postseason in the first inning. And catcher Mike Zunino, who hit .147 with four home runs in the regular season, hit his fourth homer of the postseason.

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“They genuinely care for one another and they share an incredible hunger for winning, and I think that comes from having a lot of guys who aren’t stars and didn’t have a great pedigree before they got here,” team president Matt Silverman said. "The selflessness that’s required for us to compete the way we do means the character element is huge for us. Guys are willing to sacrifice every day to keep winning.

“And I think, over time, that success has fed off itself.”

In a world of narcissism, social media and reality stars, these guys bring an old-style charm to the game. They put trust above ego, and winning above individual achievement.

There is absolutely nothing business-like about them except for their results. It’s like taking the best Little League team you’ve ever seen and fast-forwarding past the egos and riches to come up with a team that seems to understand the joy of a child’s game. They make the United Nations look like a clique. It’s not just that they have players from seven different countries, it’s that they have them from all walks of life.

“We’re not trying to fit into a mold and not trying to be people we’re not,” said Zunino. “That is a very, very hard thing to have players feel because at some point in your career someone wants to put a (label) on you as a player.”

You love them if you’re a baseball fan because you appreciate their style of play. And you love them if you’re not a baseball fan because they play with style.

They’re an odd group by MLB standards. No major stars, but no obvious weaknesses. The defense is excellent, the pitching deep and the hitting is just good enough. They win with balance, they win by attrition.

There hasn’t been a team like this in the World Series since, well, since the Rays in 2008.

That’s not a joke. The ’08 Rays were 29th in payroll, the lowest of any World Series team since free agency arrived in the mid-1970s. These Rays are 28th in payroll which, naturally, would be the second-lowest for any World Series team.

Everything we supposedly hate about Tampa Bay’s financial restraints should be everything we love about this team. They aren’t here because they’re being paid like mercenaries. A lot of them are here because no one else wanted them.

Ji-Man Choi was designated for assignment by three different teams. So were John Curtiss and Aaron Slegers. Mike Brosseau wasn’t drafted, Aaron Loup had his contract bought out by the Padres and Joey Wendle was removed from Oakland’s 40-man roster.

Team MVP Brandon Lowe was 6-for-52 for a .115 average. And it didn’t matter. Their starting pitchers have barely seen the sixth inning in the past two weeks. And it didn’t matter.

The world will say this was the night the good guys won. That may be the proper conclusion, but it will be for the wrong reasoning.

A year-old cheating scandal has made the Astros baseball’s favorite whipping boys, and it set the Rays up as the guys in white hats. And that’s fine. It’s a clean, simple storyline that everyone can comprehend.

But you’ll know better. You’ve watched these guys play, you’ve watched them grow. You see them for who they are.

A lot of pretty good ballplayers who came together to become the American League’s best team.

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

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