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Posted: Monday October 20, 2008 2:46AM; Updated: Monday October 20, 2008 11:37AM
John Donovan John Donovan >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Rays' Game 7 win is a perfect finish

Story Highlights

Their dramatic win in Game 7 was a perfect and fitting finish to the series

In their first 10 years of existence, the Rays averaged 97 losses a season

They could be the first team to go from last place to a title the next year

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Carl Crawford (top) and the Rays celebrated an improbable World Series bid.
Carl Crawford (top) and the Rays celebrated an improbable World Series bid.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
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St. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Carl Crawford practically flew in from left field. The Tampa Bay Rays' left fielder had waited a long, long time for this. He had been through most of seven long, painful seasons thinking that this very moment might never arrive. He had put up with more losing in more ways than anyone should ever be asked to endure.

So when the groundball scooted to second base, and the crowd at Tropicana Field roared, and his teammates were sucked inexorably into the middle of the diamond for an emotional, no-holds-barred party, Crawford topped it off with a flying leap onto a dogpile of Rays in a celebration of the team's first trip to the World Series. And what a way to top it off.

"I'm always the last one," Crawford said in the middle of the field, the crowd still roaring, the champagne just being uncorked. "So I was running as hard as I could, and I just took off. All I could think about was getting to my teammates. That was the only thing on my mind."

Crawford and the Rays beat the defending World Series champion Red Sox in a tight, well-played Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Sunday, capping an incredible worst-to-first season with a 3-1 win (Recap | Box Score) that was, in many ways, a perfect and fitting finish to their season. Let's count the way the Rays won on this incredible, memorable night:

• Seven innings of two-hit, one-run ball from starter Matt Garza, who came to the team in a bold offseason trade and out-pitched Boston's highly touted starter, Jon Lester, for the second time in this series. Garza was awarded the series MVP for his efforts.

• A run-scoring single from outfielder Rocco Baldelli, the team's first-round draft pick in 2000, who has fought through the sometimes crippling effects of a mitochondrial disease to become a contributor this year.

• A run-scoring opposite field double from a prized rookie, Evan Longoria.

• An important insurance home run from Willy Aybar, whom the Rays traded for this offseason when no one else wanted him.

• An incredible closing performance from 23-year-old David Price, pitching in just his eighth big-league game with his first chance at a save. He was at Vanderbilt this time last season.

• And, as always with the Rays, a series of baffling but, in the end, entertaining moves by their uncommonly visionary -- or just plain uncommon -- manager, Joe Maddon.

With the win, the Rays go from a team that, before this season, averaged 97 losses a year for the first 10 years of its existence to hosts of Game 1 of the World Series here on Wednesday night. If they get past the National League champion Phillies to win the Series -- and, at this point in their incredible journey, no smart person would bet against them -- they'd be the first team ever to go from last place to a World Series title the next season.

That, though, is getting way ahead of things. Sunday, the Rays faced elimination in a best-of-seven series that they once led 3-1. They had blown a seven-run lead with seven outs to go in dropping Game 5, and were outplayed Saturday in a 4-2 loss at Tropicana Field. The Sox had won nine straight elimination games in the ALCS. The Rays, clearly, had their work cut out for them. It looked like an even bigger challenge when Garza gave up a home run to Boston's Dustin Pedroia six pitches into the game.

But Garza, sporting a pinpoint fastball that reached into the mid-90s, shut down the Sox after that. He walked three, struck out nine, and the only other hit he allowed was a single to left by Jason Bay in the seventh inning. Garza got Mark Kotsay to fly out to right field and catcher Jason Varitek to strike out on a check swing to end the inning, walking into the dugout to a gauntlet of high fives.

"I had my gameplan and stuck to it," said Garza, who came to Tampa Bay in the trade that sent former first-round draft pick Delmon Young to Minnesota.

"He was a stallion tonight," Maddon said afterward. "He did everything he could, and I'm so proud of him and what he's done this year and how far he's come."

The Rays tied the score when Longoria doubled in first baseman Carlos Pena in the fourth (a terrible relay throw from right fielder J.D. Drew allowed the heavy-footed Pena to score from first) and went ahead the next inning. Aybar doubled off Lester down the left field line and, after Dioner Navarro reached on an infield single, raced around from second when Baldelli knocked a hit through the left side of the infield. Aybar added his homer in the seventh, off of Lester, for the final run.

The Red Sox still managed to threaten, though, and that's when the bullpen, Price and Maddon came to the forefront. Maddon made four pitching changes in the eighth inning, taking out Garza after 118 pitches and going through Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell (getting David Ortiz to hit into a fielder's choice), Chad Bradford and, finally, Price. There were some unconventional moves along the way -- Maddon pulled the right-handed Wheeler from facing the lefty Ortiz, for example, when he let Wheeler pitch to Ortiz in Game 5 -- but they all seemed to work. The Rays committed an error that inning, gave up a hit, walked a batter and had the bases loaded for Drew with two outs. But Price threw him an unhittable 87 mph slider for strike one and struck him out three pitches later with a perfectly placed 97 mph heater.

Incredibly, Maddon decided to leave in Price for the ninth.

"Grant [Balfour] had struggled a little bit lately, and I thought a lot of emotion had been expended by a lot of our guys," Maddon said in the clubhouse later, beer and champagne plastering his gray faux-mohawk to his head, his designer eyewear dripping wet. "I thought David had a lot of emotional bullets left to spend."

Maddon, as he has been through most of the season and all but a couple of instances in the postseason, was right on the money. Price walked Bay to begin the inning, but he stuck out Kotsay, struck out Varitek and then got pinch hitter Jed Lowrie on the groundout to second that precipitated the center-of-the-diamond dogpile.

"I don't know if I can really put into words what he did there," Wheeler said of Price. "I don't think he knows. The thing about him is, some of these young guys, they're just happy to be here. He's happy to be here, but he wants the ball, too. He wants to contribute. I can't put into perspective what he did there, and I've been in the bullpen for six years."

Said pitching coach Jim Hickey: "On the biggest stage of his life, he came up with one of the biggest games of his life. This was a little bit bigger than the SEC Championship."

Now, the Rays have a couple of days off to regroup and ready themselves for their unexpected trip to the World Series. A lot of people, even before this season, expected the Rays to compete this year. But few, pressed further, expected them to win 97 games and the AL East, to make the playoffs and to beat the defending World Series champs.

But here they are. Like Crawford, on top of the heap after all these years.

 
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