Commentary

Dramatic wins story of the season for the Rays

Originally Published: September 17, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Some things in sports, you can't quite explain. They don't seem possible. They don't even seem probable.

But they unfold before your eyes. So they must be real. They must be happening.

Now the astonishing tale of the Tampa Bay Rays has reached that point. Hasn't it?

They won another one of those games they had no business winning on Tuesday -- a 2-1, walk-off thriller against the mighty Red Sox.

It was not the kind of game the Red Sox lose. It was not the kind of game this team from Tampa Bay had any idea how to win for a whole frigging decade.

But then, that's why this year is different, isn't it? This, said the Rays' latest end-of-game hero, Dioner Navarro, "is why we're here."

Yep. Exactly.

When your 5½-game September lead has disappeared, when you're getting one-hit by Josh Beckett into the seventh inning, when you're nine outs away from tumbling out of first place, you're supposed to be in trouble. Right?

Carlos Pena
AP Photo/Mike CarlsonThe Rays have never played meaningful games in September before. Carlos Pena and his teammates are enjoying the experience.
But somebody forgot to explain that to these goofballs. Somebody forgot to tell these crazy dreamers from Tampa Bay that they're not supposed to be here. They're not supposed to be doing this. They're not supposed to keep on finding ways to toss banana peels under the Red Sox every time the champs seem poised to catapult past them into first place. Everybody in America seems to know that -- except the Rays.

So they just keep on doing it. Twice last week in Fenway. Then one more time Tuesday back in their own little Trop house in St. Pete.

"You know, that's what this team is all about," said Carlos Pena, another of Tuesday's cavalcade of stars. "We just keep on coming."

It was Pena who turned this game -- and maybe the entire AL East -- around Tuesday night.

As he marched up to face Beckett to lead off the seventh inning, it was all he could do to keep from having a major coronary.

The Red Sox led 1-0. First place was hanging in the air-conditioned night. Beckett was in his customary September domination mode (six innings, one hit, five strikeouts). And Pena was 2-for-16 lifetime against him, with zero homers and zero RBIs.

"That guy is just unbelievable," Pena said of good old Mr. September/October. "How can you just go out there and throw five pitches wherever you want to, whenever you want to? … So the biggest mistake you can make is to start looking for a pitch. He's got five of them. You start looking for one, you've only got a 20 percent chance. I don't like those odds."

Right. Good point. So Pena went up there thinking: See the ball, hit the ball -- and pray a lot. Lo and behold, he got around on a first-pitch, backdoor curveball, lofted it up there into the AC and deposited it approximately 4½ inches deep into the left-field bleachers. Tie game. 1-1.

Asked if he was pretty sure that ball was leaving the premises when he hit it, Pena chuckled: "Uh, not really. I almost started sliding into second base."

It was the most dramatic and most important home run Pena has hit since, well, last week, when he popped a 14th-inning game-winner at Fenway that still has his pulse drag-racing. But while this staggering blast won't replace that one on his all-time highlight list, his teammates sure seemed fond of it.

"Yeah," his manager, Joe Maddon, deadpanned. "It was kind of an uplifting moment."

Uplifting moments have become the specialty of this team's house, though. And there were more to come.

Fast-forward to the bottom of the ninth, with the game still tied 1-1. If you don't think a bunch of celestial bodies have lined up to make this Rays season possible, we recommend you study the video of the ninth inning very carefully. We bet you'll have a whole new take on the impact of interplanetary forces on baseball in about 45 seconds.

The leadoff hitter, Jason Bartlett, fell behind Boston reliever Justin Masterson (he of the 1.26 ERA since his July recall from Pawtucket) 0-2, then clunked a bloop single to right.

The next hitter was Pena. He thought he'd just fallen behind in the count 1-2, only to have strike two overturned because a pitch got away in the Red Sox bullpen and hopped into fair territory. Naturally, he ended up walking.

"That," Pena said, of The Strike That Wasn't A Strike, "was like, 'Thank the Lord.'"

Then it was Cliff Floyd's turn. He also got down in the count 0-2 -- and then got drilled in the shin. So the bases were loaded. We're still not sure how.

That set the stage for Navarro, a man who had driven in precisely three runs since Aug. 14. You know what happened next.

The count went to 2-2. The Trop shook. ThunderStix clattered. Strobe lights flashed along the catwalks. Navarro tapped the plate, wagged his bat and then pounded this team's 11th walk-off hit of the year, 400 majestic feet to the center-field track.

It would have been a ground-rule double -- except Navarro never made it to second base.

He felt the mob scene descending on him as he rounded first, tried to juke out of his buddies' way and then got buried in a rugby scrum of very happy people.

"I tried to get away," Navarro grumbled afterward, a shaving-cream trophy smeared all over his hair and earlobes. "But they caught me … I'm kinda mad right now. I had a bad hamstring, so I couldn't run away from nobody."

Whoever said they don't feel that, they must be dead. It's exciting. It's amazing. I mean, that's what you play for.

--Carlos Pena

Well, he wasn't exactly Usain Bolt to begin with. But we have this sneaking suspicion he actually wanted to be caught -- because moments like this are why he got into this business, why all of them got into this business.

They find themselves out there, playing these September baseball games that, until this year, only other guys, and other teams, got to play. With cameras pointing, media hordes descending, crowds shrieking, hearts th-th-th-thumping.

This, friends, is what they've waited their whole lives to live through.

"You sit there, and you're like getting goose bumps," Pena said. "You're extremely excited. And then, all of a sudden, you've got to stop and try to breathe -- because whoa, seriously, you've got to try to get yourself back in control.

"I don't know," he laughed. "Whoever said they don't feel that, they must be dead. It's exciting. It's amazing. I mean, that's what you play for."

They remind themselves over and over what a special journey this has been. This was a team that lost 96 stinking baseball games last year, remember? That's 96. And this year, this same team -- featuring many of those same players -- has won 89.

Only one other team in modern history had the worst record in baseball one year and then won this many games the next year -- the 1991 Braves (94-68). So it's a mind-boggling story, all right. And it keeps getting more mind-boggling every time they have themselves another one of these nights.

But there's one little problem: That story isn't over yet.

There are still 13 games left to play -- including one more with the Red Sox on Wednesday night. That AL East lead is still just one game. So as fun as the story has been so far, they still have to finish it. And they recognize that, too.

"Every time we walk through the door, we ask ourselves, 'How are we going to do it, how are we going to finish it?'" Pena said. "But then we say to ourselves, 'How did we get here?'"

It's a question virtually the entire population of North America has been asking, too. The only difference is: These men know the answer.

Just keep doing what they're doing. Focus on today. Forget about yesterday. Don't peer ahead to tomorrow.

And if all that fails, hope those celestial bodies keep sending out the magical waves that keep the miracle of the Tampa Bay Rays churning ever onward.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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