Commentary

Young, Morneau playing roles without playing

The Rays have home-field advantage in the World Series, and for that, they can thank two players not currently on their roster, writes Gene Wojciechowski.

Updated: October 23, 2008, 10:54 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Sure, they watched Game 1 of the Mohawk World Series. Michael Young tuned in from Dallas. Justin Morneau caught the game from Scottsdale. What, you thought they'd be watching "Knight Rider?"

A Texas Ranger. A Minnesota Twin. This is how it works in commissioner Bud Selig's baseball world. Two players from two different teams, neither of whom even made the postseason, could help determine the winner of the 2008 World Series.

For something they did in Yankee Stadium more than three months ago.

"At the time it didn't seem like much," said Morneau, the Twins' first baseman. "Now it seems like a big deal."

If you believe in home-field advantage -- and the baseball statistical seamheads certainly do -- what happened during the All-Star Game in July is a huge deal. And if the Tampa Bay Rays recover from a 3-2 Game 1 loss and go on to win the championship, they owe Morneau and Young a World Series ring or, better yet, a winner's share.

"Yeah, that'd be nice," said Young, the Rangers' shortstop.

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In the short, unstoried history of the Rays, few players could potentially have as much of an impact on the franchise as the non-Rays, Morneau and Young. They are the unofficial 26th and 27th men on the Tampa Bay roster. Without them, Game 1 might have been played in Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park instead of Tropicana Field, whose dome roof is shaped like a turkey pot pie left in the oven too long.

"The only thing that shocks me about this Series is that everyone is taken by surprise by the Rays," Young said. "A lot of players in the league knew Tampa was coming; it was just a matter of time. The last two years, we saw this coming."

But Young and Morneau get an assist for what began on a July 15 night in the Bronx and finally ended in the wee hours of July 16 when Young sent a first-pitch fastball toward the glove of National League right fielder Corey Hart.

Minutes earlier, Young had stood in the AL dugout watching the rally unfold in the bottom of the 15th inning. "I just had a gut feeling I was going to get another chance," he said.

It was his fifth at-bat of the marathon. He was facing, of all people, Phillies closer Brad Lidge, who throws two pitches that make big leaguers weep: a fastball that leaves contrails and a slider that bites harder than the family Doberman.

Young, who had had minimal success against Lidge in interleague play, usually picks either the fastball or slider, then sits on it. This time, he decided to look for a first-pitch heater. If he were to get it, he'd swing.

[+] EnlargeJustin Morneau
Rich Pilling/Getty ImagesJustin Morneau sneaked in with the winning run for the AL at the All-Star Game in July at Yankee Stadium. Although few knew it at the time, that run ended up being a big one … for the Rays.
He got it.

"Right when I hit it, I felt like it might be enough," Young said. "But I knew it would be a bang-bang play at the plate."

Morneau stood on third base with the score tied at 3. Third-base coach DeMarlo Hale of the Boston Red Sox had told Morneau that if a fly ball was hit directly to an outfielder, he'd send him. Any shallower, and Morneau would stay put.

As soon as Young's ball left the bat, Hale began to tell Morneau, "We're going to go, we're going to go, we're going to go. … Go, go, go, go, go!"

Morneau went. Hart's throw blew in from right. NL catcher Brian McCann waited on the first-base side of the plate. Home-plate umpire Derryl Cousins moved into position for the call.

Young was right -- it was a bang-bang play. Morneau slid in under McCann's tag. The American League won. As it turns out, so did the Rays.

"Now that the two teams are there [in the World Series], looking back, I guess that was worth playing for five hours -- for the Rays," said Morneau, who isn't a fan of the rule that gives World Series home-field advantage to the league that wins the All-Star Game.

Since 1985, the teams with home-field advantage are 18-4 in World Series play. And when the Series goes to its full length, teams with the home-field edge have won eight consecutive Game 7 games.

Who knows how this will shake out? Tampa Bay is the best home team in the big leagues. The Phillies had the best road record in the NL and showed why in Wednesday night's victory. Then there's this: In 2006, Young's ninth-inning, two-out, two-run triple on an 0-2 pitch gave the AL the All-Star Game victory and, with it, the World Series home-field advantage to the Detroit Tigers.

[+] EnlargeMichael Young
Rich Pilling/Getty ImagesMichael Young isn't actually playing in the World Series, but his 15th-inning at-bat in the All-Star Game in July allowed the Rays to host Game 1 against the Phillies on Wednesday.
"And St. Louis ended up winning," Young said. "So even though Tampa has the [home-field] advantage, there's no guarantee."

True. In fact, if you're a Phillies fan, know this: The Game 1 winner has won five consecutive World Series and 10 of the past 11. Dueling stats.

Now this has become a Series of sixes. A possible six games remain after Philly's victory. And did I mention the six degrees of baseball separation?

Kazmir earned the win in the All-Star Game. Lidge lost. In Game 1, Kazmir lost, and Lidge earned the save.

Meanwhile, Rays pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett were former Twins teammates of Morneau. Rays first baseman Carlos Pena was a former Rangers teammate of Young.

"That's pretty interesting as far as owing me a playoff share," said Morneau, who gushed about the Phillies but is pulling for the Rays. "I've got to tip my hat to them. They did it themselves. They proved they are the American League's top team."

Young is pulling for a seven-game series, rather than for the Rays or Phillies. He said both teams are worthy of a championship.

Then again, if the Rays win …

"Tell Carlos I said no ring, but to buy me dinner," Young said. "Then we're even."

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

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