Walk-Off Felt like Old Times
A Celebration for the Past, Present and Future of this Team
If you missed the Tampa Bay Rays game on Friday night, you missed an instant Rays classic contest. There was that feeling in the stadium again of the 2008 struggle to get that winless feeling out of the air of the old dome, and become the team to beat in the A L East. But far and away, the biggest emotion flowing through Tropicana Field on that night was a renewal of hope. It has been awhile since the majority of the Rays Republic showed that type of emotion out in the open for the players and other to grab a hold of and use as positive energy.The Rays were 0-224 when trailing by 7 or more runs prior to tonight’s offensive explosion.
On Friday night it was up in the air for everyone to grab and sample their own little piece of the magic that was transpiring on the turf. You could just see it in the eyes of the guys in the Bullpen, and you could just sense it in the air that change was about to happen. But what transpired can not be written about in books, or even sometimes contained in photos, the emotional charge that sweeps throughout the dome that is sent like a wave through each and every one of us to provide that instant glimmer of hope and wanting for this struggling team.
Not in the Rays brief history have we seen a offensive re-arming and dismantling of another team after they have achieved such a lead. But as we all remember in 2008, you never counted those Rays out until the last out was in stone. And for so many reasons tonight’s final victory felt exactly like that. And to make it even more remarkable was the fact the player who has been the subject of numerous articles and debates about his hitting skills and spot in the lineup came shining through and burst that personal bubble to provide the unscripted climax to the event. B J Upton was the man, but the team all have their own personal pieces of triumph in this remarkable win for their consistent belief both in themselves and their teammates.
And that is a character element that was so clear in 2008. Each player was responsible for their own actions, but no one all season long took potshots or even made reference to someone else not doing their part. They won as a team, and unfortunately lost as a team too. The word “chemistry” might be the biggest mis-used words in sports, but this team did have to melt and blend a bevy of different personalities and abilities to even make a competitive unit, much less a championship squad. And tell me you did not yearn for another one of those special home plate celebrations that became almost a nightly staple in 2008.
When was the last time you saw a “team meeting” at home plate……………last season. And also when was the last time you saw a Rays player even show any type of strut or “peacocking” as he strolled into home for his teammates ……Also only during last season. People in 2008 were quick to judge the team’s defining moments or turning points to the season. Well, if they have to again resort to finding moments of change and upward mobility, they have their first example in the way the entire team carried themselves tonight.
Every one picked themselves off the turf, dusted themselves off and got back to work nibbling and craving at that Cleveland lead. That was the way the 2008 squad attacked, as a team. They would put together scoring drives and fast attacks to stun and demoralize the competition at times. And the Rays Bullpen again is beginning to hit their own sense of stride again in 2009, which has been missed in recent games.
But you have to admit that the Walk-off homer by Upton was the perfect ending to a wild night. Here we had a guy struggling to get back to his former form and was finally starting to see some great results, then this game comes along and reminds us why we liked the guy in the first place. You have to admit to yourself that the kid has been as hard on himself as we have been on him. He is his own worst critic, and his struggles at the plate have made us grimace at times wanting to help him out in any way possible to get back to his old form.
Maybe that sight of the team trying to pick themselves off the turf for the second night in a row when they got down fast also got into B J’s psyche and boosted him through that wall he had in front of him. Thursday’s contest did not come out the same, but the fact that the Rays seemed to be working as a team boosted the thoughts that we were beginning to emerge out of that funk and again take it to some teams again.
It is not like he has never belonged here, or was struggling both on and off the field. On the field he was his usual self, diving for balls and tracking them down with his deer-like speed deep into the gap, and near the wall. His throws have been darts, and his confidence in his throws have been key in his recent surge back into the outfield assist ranks in 2009. Even if Friday night was not the final turning point for Upton, it was for this team.
They again could see the golden ring, and they grabbed it with everything they had in their bodies. It was a welcome sight to see the smiles and the confident swagger as they walked back to the dugout after this win.
The fact that these guys love to be around each other is a testament to the team unity and chemistry that VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman and Rays Manager Joe Maddon has assembled here. The glue that holds this group together is simple respect for each and every member on the roster. But tonight belonged to a guy who at 17 years of age got his first taste of the big leagues in a September call up. Back then, that Rays team was not experiencing even the slight hint of a winning edge, and some of the veteran leadership was already looking for the door out of the Rays clubhouse.
That is a sad comment, but a truthful one in the realm of the Rays in the past. You want to think that the winning foundation was set early in this franchises history, but in reality, they did not believe in th system totally until 2007. The last few seasons has seen a resurgence in Rays thinking about positives and accountability amongst themselves. It was imply a case of “do your job, do it right, and great things will happen in the end.” So can we take Friday night’s walk-off as a sign that the 2008 energy and commitment might be resurfacing in the Trop.? I know I felt it. The energy level and the positive vibes from inning to inning only seemed right to end on Upton’s first blast of the season.
But this not like the Toronto Blue Jay game in 2008 when Edwin Jackson threw an awesome game only to see Troy Percival blow the save. It is also not the same vibe or environment when Dione
r Navarro hit the grand slam to boost the Rays to a victory and finally feeling like they belong on top. No, this celebration seemed different on the turf tonight. It had all the elements of 2008 except one.
One huge difference is missing from the “team meetings” called at home plate by the Rays in 2008. This year, we are the “hunted” and not the one pursuing the top spot. But an night like this can re-shape and remove the rust and tarnish of the last month just by its sheer power. Biggest comeback in Rays history really pales a bit in comparison to a young hitter regaining his edge at the plate, and remembering why he loves to play this game.
Upton Get a Welcome Surprise during his Interview
After the conclusion of last night’s game I was sitting near my seat waiting for the anticipated in-game interview of B J Upton when Dioner Navarro came streaking out of the Rays dugout with a towel filled to the brim in deep shaving cream. I have to admit I have never seen the Rays catcher act so stealth and swift as when he deposited that wet, white concoction on B J’s face during his television and radio interview.
It is a a great tradition of baseball to see that done to him on the night that might spark of return of our centerfielder’s bat to his game. But the shock and awe of the crowd when he finally got that towel in the face was priceless. We all knew it was coming, but did not who or when it was going to be delivered. Upton took the event with class and professionalism, but I would have loved to see the scene in the locker room after Upton got back there. Hopefully Navarro was long gone by then, or there might be a shaving cream situation in the clubhouse.
That is also one of the areas that Upton has matured tremendously in the last two years. He is a soft spoken guy who kind of doesn’t take to the media side as well as some members of the team. But in the last year he has become more secure and comfortable in front of the camera, and it shows. That will bode well for him to become a likable guy to people who might not get down here and see him on the bench motioning and chatting with guys on base or in the field. He is truly one of those guys who loves this game and looks forward to it every night.