Toast of the town: Rays' thrilling ride over
Despite heartbreaking loss, rock-solid foundation firmly in place
ST. PETERSBURG -- Good karma and vibes, hustle and heart can take you places where breathing doesn't come easily. Eventually, even if you have become the best story in the land, reality has a rude way of intervening.
When it becomes a matter of skill and execution, will and desire were not quite enough for the remarkable Rays. They expired on Tuesday under a stunning power assault by Adrian Beltre accompanied by all the parts -- big and small -- that distinguish an elite team such as the Texas Rangers.
"We pushed it to the limit," Sean Rodriguez said, having done so literally with a punishing, NFL-style hit on Texas catcher Mike Napoli. "We gave it everything we had, the way we have all year. It didn't end the way we wanted, but nobody can question our effort or desire."
Rodriguez exemplified the spirit of the Rays -- and set a tone that his team would not back down -- with one of the season's most memorable runs. It was the second of three he scored in a 4-3 loss in Game 4 of the American League Division Series at Tropicana Field.
On a line-drive double to right-center field by Matt Joyce in the second inning, after homers by Ian Kinsler and Beltre had staked Matt Harrison to an early lead, Rodriguez appeared to have no chance at home on a perfect relay.
As Mike Napoli, Rodriguez's former Angels teammate, was preparing to handle Kinsler's on-target throw and apply the tag, the catcher was struck full force, shoulder first, by the smaller, compactly-built shortstop.
The ball came free from Napoli's grasp. Suddenly, the Trop was alive and the Rays were in the Rangers' chests, letting them know they'd have to earn this ticket to the AL Championship Series.
"Just two old friends playing hardball," Rodriguez said, grinning. "In my next at-bat, I asked Nap how he was and he said, `You know, it's cool.' Hey, he's crushed me before [on the bases]. I smiled back at him. That's how we were taught to play the game."
Rodriguez promptly doubled with two outs, scoring on an RBI single by Casey Kotchman, yet another former Angels player who revived his career this season near his Florida home.
It was with this go-for-the-gusto attitude embodied by Rodriguez that the Rays got here, to meaningful October baseball.
"We were in it to the last out," Kotchman said. "We were one swing away, right to the end. That's how it was down the stretch, and it's something I feel privileged to be part of this year."
With their five-and-dime payroll relative to the big spenders, it takes more than raw talent to lift a franchise to the postseason three times in four remarkable years, as the Rays have done.
Clearly, the game's most interesting manager, Joe Maddon, and his athletes are not intimidated by mega salaries and celebrities in the other dugout.
"It's tough to talk about positives at a time like this," Evan Longoria, the Rays' major star, said. "But at the end of the day, we did a lot of things that weren't expected of us -- with a lot less."
The story so many fans across the country were drawn to by the regular season's astonishing finish ended here, indoors, at the hands of a superior band driven by its own internal forces.
"They want to get back to the World Series and finish the job," Rodriguez said. "And they're capable of doing it."
The Rays may have become America's team with their storybook finish, but the Rangers continued to own the Trop. They're 5-0 the past two Octobers in Florida, and that's why they're moving on to the ALCS while Maddon's guys scatter and begin to absorb the wonder of what just happened.
"It's not difficult at all to put this in perspective," Rodriguez said. "It's easy to say what we did was amazing. We got help from Baltimore, but that was history we made along with St. Louis. It's something that will always be with us."
A World Series team a year ago that looks better now, Texas, in the final analysis, represented one mountain the Rays could not move. This is a loose, confidently assertive outfit assembled by the great Nolan Ryan and young general manager Jon Daniels, managed with just the right light touch by Ron Washington.
"We have a ton of respect for that Tampa Bay team," Washington said. "I want to congratulate them for the run they made. It's unfortunate that someone had to lose.
"One thing they can do, they can play baseball, and they play nine innings. It's been tough competing against them."
Growing up in the AL West with the Angels, Rodriguez and Kotchman have a fine appreciation of the caliber of play in a division that doesn't generate as much national attention as others.
"The Rangers are like the Yankees and Red Sox one through nine," Rodriguez said. "It's hard to contain them. They've got so many ways to beat you, so many weapons."
Kotchman is convinced the Rangers can take it the distance.
"You start with their pitching," he said. "They might not have the big names, but they execute pitches. Their pitching staff is underrated. To do what they've done in a [home] park that's hitter-friendly, in the heat with the way the ball travels, that's impressive.
"They make the plays defensively, and the offense can hurt you top to bottom. They had a guy hitting ninth today [in Mitch Moreland] who hit a ball 470 feet off the catwalk here. That's a deep lineup."
As with all teams, the Rays have personnel decisions to make this winter. But the foundation is firmly in place with a young, deep and gifted rotation that is the envy of perhaps 28 other teams -- the Phillies being the lone exception.
Maddon, characteristically, was effusive in praise of the Rangers and old friend Washington, calling them "fantastic."
The manager told about toasting his guys with a taste of fine whiskey as "the best 0-6 team in history" to open the season as they boarded a flight for their first road trip.
"I say a lot of crazy things sometimes," said Maddon, a thinker, reader and music man whose interests run as deep as the Texas lineup. "But actually this one kind of came true. It is the best 0-6 team in the history of Major League Baseball -- and I am very proud of our guys.
"I didn't realize I was such a prophet."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.