Rays latest test: Beating the Red Sox at Fenway in October
The Tampa Bay Rays face the Boston Red Sox in Game 3 of the ALCS on Monday
The Rays struggled at Fenway this year, losing their first seven games
They rebounded to win two critical games in Boston in mid-September
BOSTON -- It gets a little tiring for the Tampa Bay Rays, trying to prove themselves to everybody all the time. That's understandable, considering that for the first 10 years of their existence they proved nothing except that they couldn't prove anything.
But then they won 97 games and the American League East title in the regular season, getting past the gabillionaire Red Sox and Yankees to do so. They won their first-round playoff series against the White Sox.
"They've played well all year long," says Mike Timlin, the veteran Boston reliever. "To say they're not good, it's a lie."
But, of course, when the Rays and Red Sox meet for Game 3 of the AL Championship Series on Monday afternoon at Fenway -- the best-of-seven is tied at one game apiece -- all the questions and doubts about the Rays will come popping to the surface again. Sure, they've won on the road. Sure, they've even won at Fenway.
But can they win at Fenway Park at this time of the year? Can they win here when their magical season is hanging in the balance?
Sometimes, no matter what, you just can't shut people up.
"We're looking forward to going into Boston," Tampa Bay reliever Grant Balfour insisted in the wee hours of Sunday morning after the Rays' 9-8, 11-inning win in Game 2 of the ALCS in St. Petersburg, Fla. "We haven't won a lot of games there, and we went in there [in early September] and won the series. It's still fresh in my mind."
Ahhh, September. The Rays had proven a lot to a lot of people by early September, but they hadn't yet showed that they could win consistently on the road. In fact, when they made their last trip to Fenway, Sept. 8-10, they had just come from Toronto, where the Blue Jays had swept them in three straight, slicing the Rays AL East lead to a mere half-game over the Red Sox.
So the Rays staggered into Boston looking, finally, to make a road statement ... and were promptly shut out in the first game, 3-0, on a combined seven-hitter by Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon. But then, trailing in the ninth inning of the second game, Dan Johnson hit a tying home run off of Papelbon to push the Rays to a 5-4 win. The next night, Carlos Pena hit a three-run homer in the 14th inning in a 4-2 win in the rubber game.
The two victories were instrumental in the Rays' division title, but more than that they showed a lot of people -- maybe, most importantly, the Rays -- that this team was capable of winning big games in a place it hadn't won games of any kind. Before Johnson's game-saving homer in that Sept. 9 game, the Rays were 0-7 in Boston.
Fenway Park is a hard place for a lot of teams to play, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, the Red Sox have had some pretty good teams in the past several years. Quirky dimensions and rowdy fans aside, their deep collection of talent is the main reason the Sox were 56-25 in Fenway Park this year.
But more than that, Fenway, being the generally hitter-friendly park that it is, happens to be murder on opposing pitching staffs, too. You'd probably not be going too far afield to say that the field can get into pitchers' heads. The Sox score almost a full run a game more in Fenway than they do on the road. Tampa Bay had a 5.70 ERA in its nine games there. "There's a big monster wall, and that's it," says Matt Garza, the Rays' starting pitcher for Game 3, trying to downplay the differences between Fenway and other places. "I try to keep those guys from jumping on that wall and I'll be all right."
Whatever their problems are in Fenway, the Rays will play the middle three games of the ALCS here -- scheduled for Monday, Tuesday and Thursday -- with a lot more confidence than they possessed before that early September series. And if they make it through this test -- if the Rays can win at least one in Boston -- they will do no worse than to force the ALCS back to St. Pete, where the Rays were 57-24 at Tropicana Field, the best home record in the game.
"The games both [in Florida] and in Boston [in September] were really intensely played games. I thought they were fabulous, and they did have a playoff quality to them," Rays manager Joe Maddon said the other day. "But they never are until you actually are in the playoffs."
Well, the Rays are finally here, in Boston in October. And as for the answers to all those latest questions about them? They are still to come.