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The New Reality
TOM VERDUCCI
October 27, 2008
Someday soon—in a year, two tops—you won't think twice if you hear the words, "THE RAYS ARE IN THE WORLD SERIES!" In the meantime these young American League champs are worthy of taking on the Phillies
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October 27, 2008

The New Reality

Someday soon—in a year, two tops—you won't think twice if you hear the words, "THE RAYS ARE IN THE WORLD SERIES!" In the meantime these young American League champs are worthy of taking on the Phillies

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The biggest reason Tampa Bay is a championship team, however, is the vast improvement in its pitching and defense. The Rays actually scored fewer runs this year than they did in losing 96 games last season, but they cut their runs allowed by 273, the fourth-greatest improvement in history. That turnaround began last November with the acquisition of shortstop Jason Bartlett and righthander Matt Garza in a trade that sent outfielder Delmon Young, the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, to the Twins. Bartlett provided steady, occasionally spectacular, defense in a remade infield in which third baseman Akinori Iwamura moved to second base to accommodate the arrival of Longoria, a future Gold Glover.

"Everybody called it the Young-for-Garza trade, and we just laughed when we heard that," says Gerry Hunsicker, Tampa Bay's senior vice president of baseball operations. "We would not have made the deal unless we got Jason Bartlett. We made defense a priority. We knew we had a good base of young talent. So we sat down after last season and said, 'How can we accelerate the development of this team?' And the answer was to improve the defense."

Garza was 8--13 over parts of two seasons with Minnesota and was known for having a temper that could be as explosive as his fastball. This June 8, during a game against the Texas Rangers, Garza and catcher Dioner Navarro shouted at and shoved one another in the dugout after Navarro chastised Garza for losing his cool on the mound. "The next day," Maddon says of Garza, "he came to me and said, 'I need help. I need help controlling my emotions.' It was a huge turning point for him."

Maddon put Garza in touch with a sports psychologist, Ken Ravizza. Garza learned to channel his competitiveness in more positive ways. For instance, when he needs to make an important pitch, Garza is apt to walk off the mound, remove his cap and read inspirational writings scrawled inside it ("He won't even let me see it," says Anderson, who has become a mentor to Garza) and then focus on the next pitch. After the Texas incident, Garza had an ERA more than a full run lower (3.37) than the number he put up in his first 11 starts. "I've never seen a guy mature emotionally and professionally over the course of one season like this guy has done," Anderson says. "That incident in Texas is replayed all the time, and it should be. It brought everything to a head. He's been a different pitcher since."

Garza, 24, beat the Red Sox twice to become the youngest pitcher to be named ALCS MVP. He won Game 3 at Fenway Park 9--1 with six strong innings, then was even better in the Game 7 clincher. Garza, pitching one batter into the eighth inning, allowed one run on just two hits while striking out nine, primarily on two- and four-seam fastballs with more movement than an election-year politician.

"I'm O.K. with him going out there and throwing fastballs 100 percent of the time," Maddon says. "I'm not kidding. His velocity, command and movement with his fastball are that good."

Says pitching coach Jim Hickey, "It's a dominant pitch. The reason it's so good is the late life. Matt is capable of being one of the true elite pitchers in the league. I compare him to a young John Smoltz. His power stuff is filthy, and his slider and curveball are above average."

Maddon removed Garza in Game 7 with a 3--1 lead in the eighth after the leadoff batter reached base on a Bartlett error. The manager used four pitchers to get the next three outs, a departure from his bullpen management in the colossal collapse of Game 5. In that game Maddon lost a 7--0 lead without using any of his three lefthanded relievers until the game was tied, allowing lefthanded hitters David Ortiz (three-run homer), J.D. Drew (two-run homer) and Mark Kotsay (a double that set up the tying run) to whack away against righties. But Maddon abhors convention.

"What's wrong with unconventional?" Maddon says. "At some point you have to think differently. It's like that old saying from Einstein: Why would you expect to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results?"

MADDON REMAINED unconventional to the end of the ALCS. His fifth pitcher of the eighth inning in Game 7 was Price, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft. Maddon summoned the lefthander with the bases loaded and two outs and Drew at bat. Price had thrown only 15 major league innings and had never pitched in a save situation as a professional. "I did it once at Vanderbilt," Price said. "Came in and gave up a homer to Austin Peay to blow the save." Price whiffed Drew.

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