Commentary

Stunned Rays can only hope to put brutal loss behind them

Originally Published: October 16, 2008
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- So how do you put THAT behind you?

How do you overcome blowing a seven-run lead when you're just seven outs from going to the World Series? How do you stuff a monumental, historic collapse -- A SEVEN-RUN LEAD WITH SEVEN OUTS TO GO! -- into the hall closet of your mind so you can come back the next game and win (instead of losing to become the supporting cast in another team's postseason highlight video)?

How do you watch delirious fans dance in the crowded streets as your team bus crawls away from the ballpark and put it all behind you so that you don't become another chapter of another team's legend?

How do you respond so that you can laugh about it all amid a champagne shower in a couple of days rather than spend a long winter -- if not the rest of your career -- dwelling on what might have been?

How do you make your stories about this game begin with "One time? In the postseason?" rather than with a nervous twitch, followed by a hollow feeling in the gut?

How do you forget about blowing the biggest postseason lead anyone ever has had when on the verge of clinching the pennant?

Well, if you're Tampa Bay designated hitter Cliff Floyd, you go home, wake up with your children, turn on the TV and tune to Nickelodeon. And then you lose yourself in "Dora the Explorer" and whatever else is on the network, including "that little guy in the water."

SpongeBob SquarePants?

"Yeah," Floyd said after the Rays' inexplicable 8-7 loss to the Red Sox in Game 5 of the ALCS. "That's how you eliminate all this stuff in your mind. You can't go home and turn on the news and see why we made history. We lost. I don't know what the hell will be on ['SpongeBob'] but I hope it doesn't have anything to do with this game. I just want to go home and relax. … They won [Thursday night]. So tip your hat. As much as you want to throw up, freak out and go crazy, it happened."

Yes, it happened. Even if it still doesn't seem possible.

[+] EnlargeStunned Rays
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesThe Rays were thisclose to winning the American League pennant, but in the end lost to the Red Sox 8-7 in Game 5.
After nine last-place finishes in 10 seasons and a 96-loss, cellar finish last year, the Tampa Bay Rays, the official doormats of baseball, hit three home runs off Boston starter Daisuke Matsuzaka in the first three innings, knocked him from the game in the fifth and led 7-0 lead with two outs in the seventh inning of Game 5. The Rays needed just seven more outs to complete an astounding run from last place to the World Series in a single year.

And then, all of a sudden, the bullpen imploded, everything unraveled and the champagne was packed away. The Red Sox improbably -- impossibly -- scored eight runs in the last three innings and the entire series turned completely around. Only one team had ever blown a bigger lead in a postseason game -- the Athletics rallied from an eight-run deficit in the 1929 World Series against (who else?) the Cubs. But that wasn't with the series on the line.

A SEVEN-RUN LEAD WITH SEVEN OUTS TO GO!!!

"[We outplayed them] for six innings, but we play nine," said Tampa Bay reliever J.P. Howell, who allowed J.D. Drew's game-winning hit in the ninth. "We've got to keep on stride and throw this one out the window. They checked us. They showed us why they're here."

The funny thing is, the question before the game was whether Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon made the right call by switching his rotation and starting Scott Kazmir ahead of James Shields. Kazmir wound up pitching six scoreless innings, but when a well-rested bullpen squandered the lead, the question suddenly was why Maddon did not use his left-handed relievers against Boston's left-handed sluggers.

"Ironic, isn't it?" Maddon said.

Well, that's one way of putting it. Although talk-show hosts and fans may use different terms.

The big blow in the comeback, the blast that Maddon said "took the Red Sox right off the deck," was David Ortiz's three-run homer off right-hander Grant Balfour with two outs in the seventh inning. Maddon, however, said he did not consider bringing in a left-hander to face Ortiz. Big Papi has really struggled this series and Maddon said he felt good about the matchup.

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"We've been doing that all year," Maddon said. "Grant has been very good in that situation, actually. [Ortiz] just got him tonight. If you have been watching us all season, that's the situation where Grant has really done well. He's been that middle closer guy, and I felt pretty good about it. Papi just got him."

The problem with that explanation is that regardless of what Balfour did back in June or August, he is not pitching well this series. He hit the first batter he faced in Game 1, did not retire a batter in Game 2 and allowed a double, two singles and a run in the seventh before Ortiz stepped to the plate. Maddon needed to get him out of there even if he didn't have an effective lefty in the bullpen -- and he had three. And two of them -- Howell and Trever Miller -- have held Ortiz to two hits in 20 at-bats. Yet Maddon not only did not bring one of them in to face Boston's most feared hitter, he didn't even have either one warming up. Nor did Maddon use a lefty to face Drew in the eighth, when right-handed closer Dan Wheeler gave up a two-run blast that made it 7-6.

And then it was effectively too late.

By the time Ortiz's home run landed in the right-field bleachers, the Red Sox fans who had been slowly trickling out of Fenway suddenly sensed this could be another one of those magical nights. Howell acknowledged that with the fans howling and the ancient ballpark shaking and "Sweet Caroline" playing and the Red Sox rallying -- again -- nerves played a part in the collapse.

"A little bit. I mean, for sure," he said. "That's the battle, controlling yourself. That's the main thing about pitching, controlling yourself. And when you're in the moment, that's what those fans are there for."

So now the question is whether the relievers can overcome the jitters and the Rays can shake off such a horrible loss -- A SEVEN-RUN LEAD WITH SEVEN OUTS TO GO!!! -- to wrap up the series when they return home for Game 6 (and possibly Game 7).

"I don't think it will be that tough," Maddon said "Again, it's one game, it's a loss. Obviously, we're in a pretty good position to move on. Earlier in the game we gave it up. But if you dwell on something like that and you permit your mind to dwell in that negative mode, then nothing good can happen after that.

[+] EnlargeDan Wheeler
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesDan Wheeler was among three Rays relievers who couldn't close out the Red Sox.
"I'm a firm believer in that. The more you dwell on something in a negative sense, the more it can permeate your whole existence. So we're not going to do that."

The Rays have a lot going for them. After all, they do still lead the series 3-2. They are pretty much bludgeoning Boston's pitching -- they've hit 13 home runs so far -- and they'll be playing at home, and by swapping Kazmir and Shields, Maddon has his starters set up the way he wants.

"The one thing we have going for us is that we won three games before we lost this game. We were up 3-1. That's the luxury we have," Floyd said. "We've got a young team, but you can throw all that stuff in the garbage because if we win one game, we go to the World Series. If we don't win, then we come back and play another game. They don't have that. They have to win Saturday."

On the other hand, the Angels were in good shape in 1986, the Yankees were in great shape in 2004 and Cleveland was in excellent shape last year. And the Red Sox came back to win all three times.

And now this? A seven-run lead with seven outs to go? What is it about these guys, anyway?

"It doesn't have to be the Red Sox," first baseman Carlos Pena said. "Anyone who knows baseball, you can go back to Little League, you remember games where stuff like this happens. That's the nature of this game. You have to get 27 outs for the game to be over. Whether it's the Red Sox or the Yankees or the Bad News Bears or a Little League ballclub back home, you have to get 27 outs. Everyone in baseball knows this. This is why the game of baseball is so beautiful. There is no time limit. You never have anybody beat until that last out is made."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com