Arts & Entertainment

Picking Splinters: Worst-to-First

Once upon a time the Tampa Bay Rays were terrible. Beyond terrible. Losing was a routine and the rebuilding project was interminable.

And then they went to the World Series.

There have been many remarkable points to this storybook season for the American League pennant winners, but nothing has been quite as notable as their worst-to-first turnaround. Prior to the start of the season, the pundits that picked the Rays to represent the American League in the Fall Classic were heavily outnumbered by the T-Rexes strolling around the planet these days. The team didn’t have the look of a club that was one piece away from a World Series appearance. Fourth place in the East, yeah, that seemed about right. Even that improvement was attributed more to a step back by the Orioles rather than any surge by Tampa.

And even if Tampa did improve, there was no way they’d surpass the Yankees or the Red Sox to earn a playoff berth. The Rays featured just one batter with more than 100 RBI in 2007. The Yankees had three and bottom of the order second baseman Robison Cano added 97.

The Yankees and the Sox had the experience, and the payrolls, that are supposed playoff prerequisites.

On Opening Day, the best thing the Rays had going for them, it seemed, was their self-administered exorcism, banishing the “Devil” from their inaugural nickname [Devil Rays]. Yet 162 games later, the Rays hoisted the American League East pennant. The Yankees hoisted their golf bags.

The Rays humbled the Red Sox in three of the first four games of the American League Championship and then battled back from a blown seven-run lead in Game 5 to capture the eventual Game 7 and the World Series berth.

The scenario was unexpected, but if you were paying attention – unlikely, given the Rays’ average attendance in 2007 was 17,148 – you’d know that Tampa had some pieces in place. There was ace Scott Kazmir (239 strikeouts) and emerging hurler James Shields (184 Ks and a 3.85 ERA). There was speedy slugger B.J. Upton (24 home runs, 22 stolen bases) and the even quicker Carl Crawford (50 steals). At first base was former top-prospect, turned reclamation project Carlos Pena. Last year, Pena regained the clout that came with his former first-round draft status, crushing 46 home runs and driving in 121 runs last year.

Add in another up-and-coming starting pitcher – eventual ALCS MVP Matt Garza – and a veteran closer – Troy Percival – who convinced the kids that they no longer had to accept losing and the ingredient list was complete.

And let’s get one thing clear, this is not some fluky run to the season’s final series. In battling through the American League East, baseball’s toughest division, these Rays are battle tested … and there’s no reason to think that this team can’t match this impressive feat next year.

After finishing dead last in the division in every year but one – prior to this season – it’s hard to call the Tampa a model franchise. But it is one that other young teams (cough, cough, Washington, cough, Nationals, cough) could look to. Not for the way it was put together, but in the way it performed throughout the year.

The Rays could have packed it in at any point over the course of 162 games. They could have let slumps get the better of them and relent back into their expectation and pressure-free position in the bottom of the division. Its stars could have played selfishly, waiting only until free agency could bring them to a pennant contender. Instead, they played like champions. They fought through the bad spells. They stuck up for one another – brawling with both Boston and New York – and brought the pennant to its least likely home in Tampa.

In terms of making this script a timeless one, it is probably enough that the Rays simply made it to the World Series, defying the “destined” Boston ALCS comeback along the way. It will be memorable for Tampa’s achievement, but also because of what it means to other teams that have languished in last place for too long (see also, Washington, Pittsburgh, Kansas City).

It’s doubtful that any of those teams has the parts to achieve what the Rays did this year, but after the miraculous run we continue to witness, does anyone really want to bet 100-percent against it?