The Rays released all their frustrations and insecurities in one night. At the end of the game, Williams went to the Red Sox clubhouse to stake out Martinez, along with teammates Greg Vaughn and Bobby Smith. Martinez, with the help of security guards, sneaked out an alternate exit.
It was on. One month later, when the Rays eliminated the Red Sox from playoff contention, closer Roberto Hernandez walked off the mound at Fenway Park and waved goodbye at the Red Sox dugout. The next day, when Hernandez gave up a game-winning home run in the ninth inning, Martinez stood on the top step of the dugout and waved back at him. "Tell Hernandez he can take his hand, stick it in some K-Y jelly and shove it," Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon said.
But this June 5 at Fenway Park, as the Red Sox and the Rays staged their latest battle royal, the dynamics of the bout appeared to change. Gomes, who pummeled Coco Crisp as the Red Sox centerfielder bolted to the mound, explained that he felt compelled to protect Rays starting pitcher James Shields—who had plunked Crisp in retaliation for his hard slide into a Tampa Bay infielder the previous night—because of the righthander's importance to the organization. Finally the Rays were fighting for more than pride.
"When I was there, we felt like we had to fight for some credibility, but we didn't have the horses," says John Flaherty, a former Rays catcher and now a Yankees TV analyst. "I see the same attitude in this team, but now they have the horses. It's a dangerous combination when you have a team that is motivated to stand up for themselves and fight, and also has the talent to back it up."
The Red Sox can relate. In the beginning they were the ones with little-man's disease, throwing wild haymakers at the Yankees to no avail. Then they hired a whiz-kid G.M. (Theo Epstein), stocked a depleted minor league system with such players as Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis and turned a roster full of beer leaguers into a streamlined outfit that cared as much about preventing runs as producing them. They tabbed former Philadelphia Phillies skipper Terry Francona to manage the team, but only after they interviewed a forward-thinking bench coach from Anaheim named Joe Maddon, whom they deemed impressive but inexperienced.
The Rays, for all their differences with the Red Sox, did not mind copying Boston's blueprint. (From a philosophical standpoint Tampa Bay has more in common with Boston than New York does.) They hired their own kid G.M., 31-year-old Andrew Friedman, who in turn hired Maddon 23 months after he had been passed over for the Boston job. They built the best farm system in the major leagues, according to Baseball America. (Boston's is second.) And they preached run prevention as if it were a new religion. On July 28, 2007, Friedman sent infielder Ty Wigginton to Houston for relief pitcher Dan Wheeler, a trade that went largely unnoticed around the country but resonated in the Red Sox clubhouse.
"I felt like that's when it all started for them," Red Sox infielder Alex Cora says. "A lot of people were surprised they made that trade, but we weren't. It was just like in 2004, when the Red Sox pulled the trade for [first baseman] Doug Mientkiewicz and [shortstop] Orlando Cabrera"—both celebrated for their glove work—"and then won the World Series. Both teams realize you need pitching and defense. You can't win the World Series without it."
When teams are as stingy as the Red Sox and the Rays, games are taut and tensions high. That formula was followed in Game 1, a 2--0 Boston victory in which Tampa Bay got only four hits. The teams broke loose in Game 2, combining for an ALCS-record seven home runs. In the end, however, the player of the game was Wheeler, who worked 3 1/3 innings out of the bullpen, his longest outing in four years. The Rays won in the 11th inning, at 1:36 a.m., not with a homer, but with B.J. Upton's shallow fly ball to rightfield, not much more than an infield popup, really. Perez, regarded as one of the fastest runners in the majors, tagged up and raced home, pounding his hand against the plate. "That's not a ball very many people can go on," Perez says.
Some of the Red Sox still have a hard time seeing the Rays as contenders, much less adults. Ortiz, who refers to them as "those kids," watched closely as they failed to muster a hit off Daisuke Matsuzaka for the first six innings in Game 1. "I'm telling you," Ortiz said afterward, "I saw faces tonight different than what I see in the regular season. But I don't blame anybody. This is their first time in the playoffs. We're kind of used to it. You don't see anybody panicking." It was the kind of remark, honest but condescending, that stings as much as a Balfour fastball.
JUST AS young Red Sox learn about Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, young Rays learned about Trot Nixon and the K-Y jelly. Rays starting pitcher Scott Kazmir was among those indoctrinated early. He triggered a brawl with the Red Sox when he was only 20 years old and making his seventh major league start. Kazmir is now 24 and an All-Star. He pitched Game 2 of the ALCS, giving up five runs, which did not look so terrible compared with the eight runs surrendered to the Rays by Kazmir's fellow Houstonian Josh Beckett.