Commentary

Rays again take control of wild division

Originally Published: September 18, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- One team has a $133 million payroll. The other team has a lower payroll ($43 million) than five guys on the other side who didn't even play Wednesday night.

One team has won two World Series over the past four years. The other team once sprayed champagne after its 70th win.

One team has sold out 462 games in a row. The other team has sold out every game this year featuring a postgame LL Cool J concert.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, these are your two charismatic AL East pennant-race co-stars -- the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays. They play the same sport. They just come from two different solar systems.

But a funny thing happened to the Red Sox this week on the way to their theoretically inevitable place atop the AL East's exalted standings:

It was that other team that played as if it had been there, done this pennant-race stuff a thousand times. And it was the Red Sox who did the mumbling, the stumbling and the fumbling.

"They're good, man," said David Ortiz of That Other Team. "They whup your ass."

And if the rest of planet Earth hasn't quite caught on to how good That Other Team is yet?

"If somebody don't know," Ortiz announced, "they'd better ask somebody."

David Ortiz
AP Photo/Steve NesiusThe Rays looked as if they were in trouble after losing Monday's series opener, but then came back and took the next two from the Red Sox. David Ortiz has a simple message for everybody: The Rays are good, real good.
Well, you can ask the Red Sox now, because they've found out firsthand. And now that they're finished finding out for the regular season of 2008, here's where life in the AL East stands after Tampa Bay's 10-3 squishing of the Bostonians on Wednesday in a very strange game, at the (gulp) sold-out Trop:

It's the Rays who have taken back control of the division, boomeranging from that virtual tie they fell into Monday back to a two-game lead by Wednesday.

But what the standings don't tell you is that, practically speaking, that lead is actually even bigger than that. By winning Wednesday, the Rays also won the season series between these two clubs (for the first time in NINE years), going 10-8. And this time, that's more than just some kind of cool moral victory.

OK, get your tiebreaker charts out now and follow along. We'll wait. Everybody ready? Great.

What that season-series result really means is that, if the two teams end up tied in the standings after 162 games -- and both would make the playoffs -- Tampa Bay would be awarded first place and home-field advantage, while the Red Sox would head for Anaheim as the wild card. Why? Because head-to-head play is the first tiebreaker.

Whew. Tiebreaker fever. Catch it.

So you've heard about games this time of year that represent a two-game swing? This one was really a three-game swing. But for the Red Sox, it felt more like a swing and a very big miss.

"We wanted to control this thing ourselves," said Red Sox catcher Kevin Cash in a very quiet clubhouse. "Now, obviously, we're going to need some help."

Yep. Sure do. This isn't where the Red Sox expected to find themselves. But this is where they are, 152 games down the highway. And it isn't because they've collapsed, either.

They have the best record in the American League since Aug. 1 (aka the post Manny Being Manny era). They have a better winning percentage for the season (.586) than all but three teams in the whole sport.

They own a spectacular plus-158 run differential for the season, and a plus-40 over their past 19 games. And they've lost only two series in the past month. So nobody is confusing them with, say, the Mariners.

What, then is the single biggest reason the Red Sox find themselves in this spot? It's that team they just finished playing. What else?

Twice in the past week and a half, Boston won the first game of a three-game series against the Rays and seemed positioned to blow by them in the high-occupancy vehicle lane. Twice, it was the Rays who answered, winning three tense, tight, classic September baseball games, then finishing the job Wednesday with a good, old-fashioned wipeout.

[The Rays] are playing like they have nothing to lose. And that's dangerous.

--David Ortiz

"That's not the team we're used to playing," said Tim Wakefield, the losing pitcher Wednesday. "They're very, very good. They're not a team to take for granted right now."

And Wakefield ought to know. His tumultuous evening summed up just how wacky this game really was. Check out all of this vintage Trop looniness:

• Wakefield started the night tied for the most wins ever against the storied Tampa Bay franchise (19-4 lifetime) and the most ever in the Trop itself. Naturally, he was reaching for the shower knobs 2 1/3 innings later, after allowing six runs and serving up three homers -- more bombs than he'd given up in his previous seven starts against the Rays combined.

• Two of those three homers were whacked by switch-hitters Willy Aybar and Fernando Perez. What was notable about that was that both were batting RIGHT-HANDED, against a right-handed pitcher. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it's the first time in the 40-season division-play era that two switch-hitters homered from the "wrong" side of the plate against a right-handed pitcher in the same game.

• Wakefield was one of FOUR -- count 'em, four -- pitchers the Red Sox needed just to make it through the third inning. Two of them -- relievers Devern Hansack and Javier Lopez -- managed to commit errors in that inning. And, not surprisingly, Elias reports that that's the only time in the past 20 years any team has gotten two E-1s out of its bullpen in the same inning that early in a game. Hard to do, friends.

• There was also a time when hitting a home run that didn't return to earth seemed hard to do. But not in this series. Jason Bay mashed a homer Monday that got stuck in the "C-ring" catwalk in center field. Then, on Wednesday, Ortiz squashed a towering shot that turned into the first ball ever to seek permanent asylum in the "D-ring" in right. Asked to appraise that space shot -- his second homer of the game -- Ortiz mustered a smile and quipped: "That means I've still got it."

• Later, in the seventh inning, the game actually had to be stopped for several minutes while a swarm of security officers tried to apprehend an unruly fan who seemed determined to bull his way to the top of the Rays' dugout and points beyond. It eventually took a thunderous Samoa Joe body slam and head scrunch to finish that mission as mesmerized players on both teams hung on every move.

"Damn," Ortiz said. "That dude got TATTOOED."

Yeah, it was that kind of night. The Boston phone line to the bullpen even went on the fritz at one point, leading to a nonstop barrage of ringing phones in the dugout from the outside world ("Hey Papi, could we get one pepperoni to go?").

And there was also the comforting ambiance of Cowbell Night to add to the Red Sox's enjoyment of the festivities. Nothing like three hours worth of 36,048 people shaking those cowbells to keep you from thinking straight.

"Man, those things drive you nuts," said first baseman Sean Casey. "Will Ferrell should have kept them in the skit." (Author's note: Head over to YouTube for further details on that exceptional "SNL" citation.)

But once the cowbells had finished clattering, it was reality the Red Sox were trying to ignore as they bolted for the airport.

Thanks to those darned tiebreaker rules, they're now essentially three games out with 10 to play. Which means that, barring a whole bunch of Rays losses, it will soon be time for them to contemplate just how important it is for them to grind through next week to win this division. And the guess is, their answer will be: not real important.

"I don't put too much stock in [finishing first]," Mike Lowell said. "I saw it firsthand in 2003 [with those wild-card champs, the Marlins]."

"Obviously, we want to win the division," Wakefield said. "But we'll take a playoff berth however it comes."

"Once you're in, you're in," Ortiz said. "It don't matter. … I never noticed a difference between winning your division and going in as the wild card. As long as you're in, you're in."

And as disappointing as this series might have been to the champs, the Red Sox know now they're going to be in. They're seven games up in the wild-card race with a week and a half to play. But once they get in, they just might have a rocky road ahead of them.

They went 1-8 this year against their likely first-round opponent, the Angels. And if they survive that round, they could be looking at another trip to Tampa Bay -- where they lost eight out of nine this season.

And that's not because of catwalks or cowbells, either. That's because the team that plays there is for real, whether America has caught on to that yet or not.

"They're playing like they have nothing to lose," Ortiz said before heading for the exits. "And that's dangerous."

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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