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Posted: Thursday October 30, 2008 12:38AM; Updated: Thursday October 30, 2008 10:09AM
Jon Heyman Jon Heyman >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Youthful Rays refuse to mourn, remain confident about future

Story Highlights

The Rays were hardly moping following their World Series loss to the Phillies

Young and talented, the Rays said they expect to remain a contending team

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PHILADELPHIA -- The Rays' incredible World Series championship dream was finally foiled by the elements, the tough and clutch Phillies and especially their perfect closer, Brad Lidge. But when it was over, there wasn't the disappointment, anger and bitterness normally associated with the team that finishes second.

Rather, there was more than a Ray of hope and happiness in their clubhouse after the worst-to-first Tampa Bay team succumbed to the Phillies 4-3 (Recap | Box Score) in a three-day Game 5 drama that ended the Rays' unreal ride.

Among all the miracle teams in baseball history, they might rank below the Amazin' Mets of 1969 -- but if they do, they are still in the top two. Before the Phillies beat them in the five-game World Series that lasted a lot longer than that, the Rays made the impossible possible. Many times over, they did that.

"We did stuff nobody had any clue we could do,'' Cliff Floyd said.

"This is a great story.''

If the story is diminished now by their World Series defeat, it's only by a smidgen. That theirs was maybe the least disappointed losing locker room in World Series history is only right. What they did was truly remarkable.

The Rays kept beating the odds. Only when they were installed as a surprise World Series favorite, partly by virtue of their league and their story, did they finally fall.

"It's OK. We're still the American League champion,'' staff ace James Shields said. "The world believes in us now. I think we shocked the world.''

They did, indeed, and they did it over and over again.

Led by erudite and even-keeled manager Joe Maddon, who did the best managing job anyone's done in years, these Rays fulfilled his spring dream to make it to October after winning only 66 games last year. They improved beyond comprehension, and they twice knocked off the defending World Series champion Red Sox, once over the rigors of the 162-game regular season and once in a roller coaster of an ALCS they had to rescue in seven games after blowing a 7-zip lead in Game 5.

They ran out of miracles against an unfamiliar foe in inclement weather (though baseball caught a break Wednesday with temperatures in the 40s and no precipitation for the resumption of Game 5 after a 46-hour rain delay). Maddon referred to the unusual set-up when the game resumed at the start of the bottom of the sixth as "reality TV at its best.'' It sure made things interesting.

Maddon, who pushed all the right buttons over 173 games, had an unprecedented and absurd two days to line up his relievers just right. But hard-throwing right-hander Grant Balfour surrendered the first go-ahead run after allowing a leadoff double to struggling Geoff Jenkins in the sixth. And J.P. Howell, the Rays' best reliever all year, allowed the final go-ahead run after giving up a long leadoff double to struggling Pat Burrell, the longtime Phillie who'd been zero-for-the World Series before hitting one off the top of the center-field wall to set up the winning run that was knocked in on Pedro Feliz's single up the middle off yet another Rays reliever, Chad Bradford.

Some suspected Maddon instead might go immediately to rookie phenom David Price and let him ride the game out. And that seemed to make some sense. But Maddon said, "To lay the whole last part of the game on David is not right. All these pitchers had great seasons for us, and they deserved to be out there.''

If Price, who threw a scoreless eighth inning, wasn't the right call for Maddon, Floyd noted, "The East better watch out. He'll have a new role next year.''

For this 3-inning game, Maddon went instead to his rotation of relievers, a plan that got him this far but failed him here.

"I had everything thought through before the game,'' Maddon said. "Except they got hits. ... They messed up the game plan.''

Maddon especially loved the Howell-Burrell matchup. But Burrell, who'd been 0-for-13 in this Series, tagged a belt-high curveball, sending it to the deepest part of the diamond and putting the Phillies in position to win their first World Series title since 1980 and their second ever. Maddon wouldn't reveal why he loved that particular matchup -- "state secret,'' he said -- but anyone could envision the whiff-prone Burrell flailing at one of Howell's patented diving curveballs.

"I felt good with the pitch. He did a good piece of hitting,'' Howell said of Burrell. "You can beat yourself up. But I went with that pitch all year.''

Howell, superb all season, did beat himself a little more than most in the Rays clubhouse. And that makes sense under the circumstances.

"It's just tough when your name's in the loss column in an elimination game,'' Howell said. "It's tough to swallow.''

Throughout the year, Maddon allowed 30 minutes after losses to lament things. But he wouldn't dissuade Howell in this case since there is no game tomorrow.

"I'm OK with that,'' Maddon said.

All the Rays are more than OK with the way this year went. There were fewer regrets and recriminations than in any losing clubhouse.

And Maddon didn't mind that one bit. "I just think our guys handle things pretty well,'' Maddon said. "And that's a tribute to their character.''

Perhaps it's a side effect of their unusual circumstance, too. A lot of the talk turned to their future, which looks as bright as the Tampa sun.

"We're young, and we're not done,'' Shields said.

"We expect to be back next year, and the year after that, and the year after that,'' said Price

Floyd loves this team. But he warned that that's what folks thought about the Tigers two years ago, and the Rockies last year, to mention two teams that have since slipped. But there was too much good feeling to think about that now.

"It's only the beginning of the ride,'' the Rays' owner Stu Sternberg said. "The journey's going to be tremendous for years to come.''

No one could really argue with that, not after witnessing them make the impossible happen every time but once.

 
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