Commentary

Young Rays flourishing on October stage

Originally Published: October 13, 2008
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- Back when the Tampa Bay Rays had a "Devil" in the middle of their name, someone in the organization might have envisioned Rocco Baldelli, B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria combining for a monster game like this in October. Isn't that what bonus babies are supposed to do -- come up big on the national stage?

But talent and a first-round pedigree don't necessarily guarantee success. Do the names Bryan Bullington, Luke Hochevar, Justin Wayne and Mike Stodolka strike a chord? They're a few of the players chosen ahead of Tampa Bay's aforementioned threesome at the top of the 2000, 2002 and 2006 first rounds.

Shortly after Baldelli, Upton and Longoria combined for three home runs and seven RBIs in Tampa Bay's 9-1 American League Championship Series victory over Boston on Monday, manager Joe Maddon paused to give credit to Dan Jennings and R.J. Harrison, the men in charge of Tampa Bay's draft "war room" when the Rays took the plunge.

"Sometimes when a first-round pick works out, people say, 'Well, everybody could see that,'" Maddon said. "That's not necessarily true. You still have to pull the trigger at that particular moment and stay with your convictions. I have a lot of respect for scouting directors who don't mess up the No. 1 pick."

Hey, when owners, general managers, newspaper columnists and Bud Selig talk about the importance of prioritizing and "building from within," this is a pretty good example of what they're referring to.

In the first October appearance in franchise history, the Rays are making it clear that they belong. They're brimming with talent, confident in their ability, unfazed by pressure and, best of all, two wins from a spot in the World Series.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Upton
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesB.J. Upton's three-run homer in the third inning of Game 3 was his fifth long ball in seven postseason games this October.
These are heady times for the homegrown Rays. On Saturday night, they endured five hours and 27 minutes of baseball over 11 innings to beat the Red Sox 9-8. When Upton's fly ball to shallow right field scored Fernando Perez with the winner, it was past bedtime for some of them.

In Game 3, the Rays flogged Boston lefty Jon Lester, who had been close to perfect in the postseason. Now, they'll try to take command of the series Tuesday against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who is 0-2 with a 5.87 ERA in three starts against Tampa Bay this season.

If the Rays win, rest assured that they won't get carried away with themselves. And if they lose, hey, there's always Thursday. The Tampa players were joking around and treating it like just another night at the office from the moment they arrived at the cramped visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park. Somebody forgot to hand them the memo decreeing that this is a life-and-death proposition.

"These guys are about as loose as they've been all year," bench coach Dave Martinez said. "Joe and I watch them take batting practice, and we're just amazed how calm and poised they are. They've been waiting a long time for this, and they're enjoying every minute of it."

The Rays came into Game 3 with a definitive game plan. Precisely what it was depends on whom you ask.

When Lester set down the Rays in order on a grand total of four pitches in the first inning, it appeared that the Tampa Bay hitters were in optimal free-swinging mode.

"With a guy like him who throws 96 miles per hour, you might as well come out and be aggressive," left fielder Carl Crawford said. "If you sit back and watch, he'll carve you up."

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But the Tampa hitters eventually began working themselves into better counts, and it paid off in the third inning. The big hit of the evening came off the bat of Upton, who drove a belt-high, 94 mph fastball over the Green Monster and onto Lansdowne Street to turn a 1-0 lead into a comfortable 4-0 advantage. Two batters later, Longoria hit a towering solo shot to extend the lead to five.

"We just didn't bite on the pitches he wanted us to bite on," Upton said of Lester. "He throws a lot of balls that start in the zone but end up out of the zone. We were a little more patient with him today."

Although the source of Longoria's power is obvious, Upton's tends to sneak up on you. He's listed at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, with a physique third-base coach Tom Foley compares to that of former Cincinnati outfielder Eric Davis. Even Crawford -- such a talented all-around athlete that he once received a basketball scholarship to UCLA and a football scholarship to Nebraska -- is impressed by Upton's all-around game.

"He has this calm demeanor and people mistake it for laziness sometimes, but he's really just calm," Crawford said. "He can make any throw on the field, and at the plate he'll hit the ball 400 feet. He's one of those guys that you look at and you wish you had everything he has."

Still, even five-tool players can use a little perseverance. When Upton made 56 errors at shortstop in his first minor league season, those Derek Jeter comparisons weren't quite as prevalent. The Rays rushed him to the majors before he was ready, and he had enough trouble finding a position that it appeared a change of scenery might be the best thing for his career.

Upton finally broke through in 2007 after an injury to Baldelli allowed him to move to center field. But he's still enduring some growing pains. His home run total slipped from 24 to nine this season, and he was benched by Maddon in August for failing to run out a ground ball. He was booed by fans at Tropicana Field, and veterans Cliff Floyd and Carlos Pena told him a little more professionalism might be in order.

"It's not a good thing when it happens," Foley said. "But we're trying to build something here, and one of the few rules Joe has is to run out a ball hard. B.J. has had some mental lapses, but he's a great kid. I love the kid. He's going to be playing a long time."

[+] EnlargeRocco Baldelli
Stew Milne/US PresswireIn his first appearance in the ALCS, Rocco Baldelli, center, hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning for the Rays.
When the Red Sox still had a glimmer of hope, Baldelli took care of that. He appeared to be jammed by a Paul Byrd slider on the inside corner, but pulled in his hands and hammered the ball over the Monster and off a "Sports Authority" banner to give Tampa an 8-1 lead.

File this one under "heartwarming." Baldelli has endured a crushing run of injuries in recent years, and he reached a low point this season when he was diagnosed with a rare neuromuscular disease called mitochondrial myopathy. The illness left him inexplicably fatigued, and it took time, persistence, medication and a devoted Tampa Bay medical staff for him to get back onto the field.

Baldelli grew up in Woonsocket, R.I., so he's well-versed in the history of Fenway Park. He had lots of friends in the stands for Game 3, and his little brother Dante was on the field with him before the game during batting practice.

"I have trouble putting it into words," Baldelli said when asked how gratifying the moment was. "It's like getting a gift that you're not expecting. To start at the bottom [with this team] and work your way all the way back up to where we are now … I mean, that's about as rewarding a feeling as you can get."

The only thing more rewarding would be winning two more games to reach the World Series.

"We didn't get to this point being lucky," Crawford said. "We got here because this is something all 25 guys want. We realized we can achieve a lot just by playing together."

No kidding.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer