9=8… Rays Win the American League East

rays win 1

The chase for the division is over. The Rays will sit atop the hardest division in baseball at the end of the regular season. It had been 11 years since anyone BUT the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox had been division champs. That streak ends, at least for one year. Who else is ready to join the Rayvolution? Are you feeling the heat already? The winner of the AL Central most certainly will when either the White Sox or Twins begin a best of 5 against the Rays Thursday night at Tropicana Field, where the Rays have the best home record in all of baseball. Rumor is that BOTH games are sold out. The Rays are undefeated in the last 20 or so when the crowds at home are over 30,000. You do the math.

I just wanted to share my enthusiasm, obviously, but also Tampa Tribune’s Martin Fennelly’s column. He’s one of my favorite journalist because of his style of writing. It’s unique… almost mirroring a sort of stream-of-consciousness. You simply could not sum up the season any better than how he does t in this piece. Enjoy reading it!

By MARTIN FENNELLY | The Tampa Tribune

Published: September 27, 2008

Updated: 02:40 am

DETROIT Most of them left the visitors clubhouse without knowing whether they owned a flag or not. The franchise that has waited 11 seasons to plant one in the Red Sox and Yankees had to wait a little longer.

Many of the amazing Rays departed Comerica Park after losing to the Tigers on Friday night. Their magic number for clinching the American League East remained 1. The Yankees were clobbering the Red Sox, but doing it in and around rain delays at Fenway Park.

So Rays scattered, some to the team hotel, others to a nearby casino; the latter seemed appropriate for the team that had beaten all the odds. Rays manager Joe Maddon lingered in the clubhouse with his coaches and a small platoon of his miracle men.

But one by one, or three by three, the others came back to the stadium.

They had to be together.

It’s like that grand old man, Cliff Floyd said.

“We’re a team, after all.”

The clock struck midnight.

And the magic number turned to none.

The Red Sox were crushed by the Yankees.

Actually, it was 12:52 a.m., Destiny Time, when the pumpkin turned into a coach all over again.

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They sprayed champagne and poured beer on their AL East caps and shirts, they smoked big fat cigars (eventually setting off stadium smoke alarms) and screamed “9=8,” the Maddon-made mantra that became the running theme – nine men competing for nine innings equals one of the eight playoff teams.

There’s something about a group of sloppy Rays forming a circle around Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria as they dance cheek to cheek that, well, never gets old. Or maybe it was the skipper himself parting the sea of celebrants, holding aloft a bottle of Patron tequila as if was a holy relic.

“Jon?”

Maddon was calling Rays mad dog Jonny Gomes.

Gomes seized said tumbler.

And it was on.

Here are your Rays, Tampa Bay.

They are tickling America’s nose as much as any bubbly could.

Forget the presidential debate.

Move over, McCain and Obama.

Meet the real candidates of change.

And the new Beast of the East.

It had been 11 years since anyone other than the Yankees or the Red Sox had won the American League East. We figured it would be another 111 before that changed.

These Rays believed different.

Never mind that the combined Red Sox and Yankees payrolls resembled some sort of federal bailout plan, or that Rays players earned less than the left side of the New York infield. That whining sap, Yankees sort-of owner Hank Steinbrenner, is right. It isn’t fair being the AL East.

How are you going to beat the Rays?

People, stupid people, will say that Joe Maddon’s guys backed in, seeing as they’d lost two straight to the Tigers.

Let me tell you something:

When you go from worst to first, when you go from 96 losses to 96 wins, from fantasy to reality, there’s no such thing.

You don’t back into a mountaintop.

“You don’t back into something like this,” Pena said.

Amen, brother.

If you own a car horn, honk it.

If you own a frying pan, bang it.

If you love an underdog, bark at the moon.

The story that couldn’t be beat couldn’t be beaten by the Red Sox, either.

“We stared everyone down,” Rays reliever J.P. Howell said the other day.

Every single Ray, big names, no names, any name, chipped in.

And believed.

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“You’ve got to believe it before you see it,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Yes, they would have liked to have clinched it their way. The Tigers would have none of it, and that includes Tampa son Gary Sheffield, who hit the 498th and 499th home runs of his career.

But it happened anyway.

No one could stop the Rays.

They stared everyone down. They lost Longoria and Carl Crawford to injuries and they kept staring. They lost Troy Percival and B.J. Upton and they kept staring. They lost seven in a row before the All-Star break and they kept staring. They lost that first game at Fenway a few weeks ago and kept staring. And believing, even when others didn’t.

“If you weren’t here to see it, you wouldn’t believe it,” said Dan Johnson, who probably got the biggest hit of the season, that ninth-inning home run off Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon to tie a game that the Rays eventually won.

Dan who?

Tampa Bay who?

The Beast of the East, that’s who.

We once questioned how they were doing all this.

Now there’s only one question:

Why not the Rays all the way?

“Why not us?,” Floyd asked. “Nobody wants to play us.”

Why not the Rays over the Twins or White Sox, or Angels and Red Sox? Why not their pitching, defense, bullpen and enough hitting to make you think someone upstairs has just come downstairs and is doing the backstroke in the Rays tank?

We’ve spent a season wondering just when these cats were going to crack, and right now we could walk from here to the postseason on Rays champagne corks.

Why not the Rays?

And to think, there was a time when a lot of Rays wanted no part of the AL East. The Red Sox and Yankees were menaces.

Gomes, who was the life of the celebration, remembered the first time Maddon told his Rays that the AL East was the best place for the Rays.

“We thought he was high,” Gomer said.

And so they are – high, oh, so high.

And the Red Sox can only look up.

And there’s a moral to the story.

“I bet every team with a payroll like ours can take something from this,” Floyd said.

I bet someone slugging it out for seven bucks an hour can take something from this.

“In this day and age, where most everything seems to be measured by the amount of money you put into it, people can identify with good play, with effort,” Maddon said. “They can identify with putting something together, with coming together, with unity, trust and accountability.”

Gomes added, “It’s the story of the kid who keeps getting his lunch stolen by the bullies until he punches back, and he keeps all his money.”

There’s a lot of kid in these amazing Rays. Before Thursday’s game, Carl Crawford smiled like he was waiting on a parade.

“And now we got a flag to wave,” Crawford said.

“This is only the start,” Maddon said.

Believe it.

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