by John Furgele
Now, the pressure’s on. The Tampa Bay Rays are now one devastating loss away from suffering a collapse that may linger into 2009 and beyond. The Red Sox 4-2 Game 6 victory in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series puts the Rays one loss away from baseball immortality, and not good baseball immortality.
They were cruising. Up three games to one and up 7-0 entering the bottom of the seventh against a Red Sox that was ready to go into submission. But then, the magic happened and since that epic comeback, the Rays look like a team with a pulse that has nearly flatlined. In the 33 inning stretch from Game 2 through the sixth inning of Game 5, the young Rays scored 38 runs. Since the seventh inning of Game 5, they have scored just two, with both coming on solo homers. No rallies, no lead off singles or doubles, no pressure applied to the Red Sox at all.
They can deny that they’re tight, deny that they’re feeling more pressure, but they are tight and they are feeling pressure. It’s only natural. Even the mighty Red Sox, the 2000s version of the late 1990s Yankees feel pressure. It’s a part of the postseason., just like the four hour game is. And, trailing 4-2 in the late going of Game 6, the thoughts of Game 5 had to be in their heads.
The Red Sox just won’t die and just don’t want to be eliminated. But, should they come back—and that’s still a big if—this would be different. Last year, they were down three games to one and faced elimination at Cleveland, but they cruised 7-1 behind Josh Beckett in Game 5, then broke open Game 6 thanks to a Grand Slam home run by J.D. Drew, then pulled away late in Game 7. They never faced death liked they faced in Game 5 last Thursday.
Their 2004 comeback against the Yankees might even pale in comparison. In that series, they were only one one run down when Kevin Millar walked, pinch runner Dave Roberts stole second and then scored on the hit by Bill Mueller. Sure, they were down three games to none and were facing the great closer, Mariano Rivera, but teams often rally down one run in a baseball game. Heck, the Arizona Diamondbacks did that in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series when they rallied from a 2-1 deficit to win 3-2 against—Mariano Rivera.
After pulling out Game 4, the Sox won an extra inning white knuckler in Game 5, then headed to New York to face a Yankee team that was running out of healthy pitchers. They cruised in Game 6 and roughed up the Yankees in Game 7. Once again, they came back, but they didn’t come back like they did in Game 5 of this ALCS. They played from ahead in both those games at Yankee Stadium.
The Rays just looked like a team that was still getting a standing 8 count. James Shields was okay, but left after 5 2/3 innings trailing. At the plate, it seemed like every Ray was uppercutting, trying to go deep. They were facing a clearly injured Josh Beckett, who labored through five innings on curves and changeups. Most of his fastballs were in the 87-90 range, with many at 88. Still, the Rays could not get any rallies going, with their two runs coming on solo blasts by B.J. Upton and Jason Bartlett. Even late, when they were trailing, they never seemed interested in getting a rally going. When you’re down two runs, a solo homer helps, but it doesn’t start a rally–or tie the game.
Tomorrow should be a special night as history will be made one way or the other. If the Red Sox win, they get ready to host the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 1 of the World Series. Would they run the table again, like they did after their ALCS rallies in 2004 and 2007? Since that time, Boston has played eight World Series games and have won them all. Does anybody think the hard luck Phillies, with one championship in 126 seasons are going to stop them? If Boston wins, it will be said that the 2008 postseason literally turned on a dime, the seventh inning dime of Game 5.
The dime has made appeareances before. In 2003, the playoffs turned when Moises Alou was prevented from catching a ball by a Chicago Cub fan with the Cubs up 3-0 in Game 6, needing just five outs to win the National League pennant. Cub fans still forget that after Alou’s anger, the next ball was a tailor made double play ball that was booted by shortstop Alex Gonzalez. But, alas, the dime was there, the series turned, the Marlins won the NL flag and then won the World Series.
Now, if Tampa Bay wins Game 7, it will be a great story, a story of a team that overcame some demons and was able to regroup, rebound and revive to win the AL pennant. Remember, Tampa Bay hasn’t blown anything yet. Being on the verge is not the same, close, but not the same.
As a baseball fan, you almost have to root for the Rays. You don’t want to see that team haunted by “Game 5” until they win a championship. As a baseball fan, you can justify rooting for the Rays because you can use the old, “Boston has two championships since 2004 and it’s time for somebody else to win.” Now, if you’re a Red Sox fan, or you like this kind of misery/drama, then you will probably disagree.
Should Tampa Bay lose, you just don’t know if they can come back for there are no guarantees. Look at the New York Mets. They were one big hit away from advancing to the 2006 World Series, but lost 3-1to St. Louis in Game 7 at Shea Stadium. In 2007, they blew a seven game lead with 17 games to play and in 2008, they lost a 3.5 game lead with 17 to play. Not only have the Mets not come back, they haven’t made the playoffs or won 90 games in each of the last two seasons. As for the Cubs, that’s all that is needed to say, we have seen their act since 2003.
A Rays loss might linger for quite some time. There are those who think that this team is a one hit wonder. Now, I don’t really believe that, but look at the division they play in. The AL East is a dog fight, the home of the 3 1/2 hour 2-1 game and the 4 hour plus anything else division. The Red Sox, the New Empire sit in this division. The Old Empire, the New York Yankees sit in this division and the one thing we know about them is that they are angry at missing the playoffs for the first time in 12 seasons. The Old Empire is going to to do whatever it takes to get back to the playoffs. And, the Toronto Blue Jays have a billionaire owner who is sick and tired of coming in third and fourth behind the New and Old. They just might sign Manny Ramirez, knowing that they have to play 37 or 38 games against the Yanks and the Sox. And, you never know, one of these days, the once proud Balitmore Orioles might find some magic and remind people that they still have a team in the American League.
So, the Rays almost have to get by Boston later this evening not only for their present but for their future. If they don’t, they might be so shellshocked that they may not recover for years. They may win 88 games next year, but that would probably be good enough for third place in the AL East. They might as well win tomorrow and get it out of the way.
But, the Red Sox might not be willing to let that happen. We just have to wait and see how it plays out.