You could feel the moment beginning to pulsate within the Teflon roof of Tropicana Field. It was the top of the ninth inning with Tampa Bay Rays closer Rafael Soriano heading to the hill. With the sound of the sledgehammer hitting pure steel, your heartbeat synched solely with that one loud clang for several moments before someone shook you and you were forced back into this realm of reality.
Rays starter David Price had done his job for eight solid innings, and now the Rays All Time saves leader was not out there to collect another save, but to be one with a moment that will be in Rays fan’s minds for a long, long time. Soriano did not have to be inserted into the game with a 5-0 score and no chance of a save opportunity, but somehow, it just seemed right that the guy who anchored the backend of the Rays success this year should get a front row seat to the celebration carnage.
And even before Home Plate Umpire Joe West got a chance to throw a vocal note to the final pitch thrown by Soriano past Baltimore Orioles hitter Adam Jones, the Rays dugout and Bullpen were half way to the pitcher’s mound. Celebration was in full force in St. Petersburg that night with veterans like Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford taking special moments to collect all the sights and sounds of this cherished event.
With a scheduled Team meeting at the pitcher’s mound, the entire team collected and embraced, high-fives all around brought the evening to its ultimate climax, but there was a second act yet to be played out upon the turf of Tropicana Field. As the Rays employees were herded into their own special corral just to the west of Home Plate to be a part of the celebration, the first bottle of champagne was open by Rays First Base Coach George Hendricks who then made sure Rays Manager Joe Maddon, who was being interviewed in full view of the entire stadium at the time, got the first taste of the bubbly.
Sweet nectar of the God’s streamed down Maddon’s fresh new Rays playoff cap and upon his Carolina Blue plaid lettered T-shirt to commemorate the moment. Just as quickly, players began to filter out of the Rays clubhouse holding their own bottles of Domaine ste Michelle champagne looking to celebrate and salute a moment 161 games in the making. B J Upton and Crawford were the first to rise to the top of the Rays dugout and spray the home crowd while others looked for family members or friends to celebrate this historic Rays moment.
Then slowly, but surely, the team made its triumphant march down the First Base sidelines with bottles in hand spraying the crowd and offering a few swigs to those special fans and friends assembled to bring a final end to the first primary goal of this Rays team. I took my usual photo space down by the Rays Bullpen secondary clubhouse entrance and began to shoot the impending celebration stampede heading my way. I had to put down my camera as player after player came by and let me have a small slice of that moment with them.
Willy Aybar immediately doused me with champagne right after I congratulated Upton and Grant Balfour and then I saw the biggest smile on the faces of both Evan Longoria and David Price who earlier that day were going through some personal damage control after some unusual comments by the pair.
I yelled at Longoria that “this was the first of five celebrations” and he looked at me and said” I truly believe that.” Price then shook my hand and I told him I was proud of his actions today and every day he has been here.
Suddenly, the players sea seemed to part for a moment and one of my oldest baseball friends on the team presented me with a ¾ full bottle of champagne and quickly he disappeared in the exuberant posse. I quickly took a long and deep swig of that nectar and immediately passed it to a friend who took her own dose of delightful bubbly and I thrust the bottle to the air. A few players saw this and also cheered and pointed to me as I took in this second celebration, and immediately remembered just how far this team had come in 2010.
How only one National Media guru had predicted the Rays to be in the post season at all, and a shot at getting the divine prize of another American League East title was still sitting on the mantle waiting for the Rays to claim it for themselves. That celebration will have to wait until Kansas City, but tonight we were toasting to the success and the finalization of putting the Red Sox out of our rearview mirrors knowing that the New York Yankees were the only foe in our sights of another A L East crown.
And there was something soothing about this second time. Something that did not have me nervous or pacing like in 2008. Maybe it is the pure fact we have been here before. That we have scaled the mountain in recent times and could again hike it with the ultimate result this time…winning it all. Tonight was the symbolic starting point to that journey. A celebratory exclamation point to the 2010 season, but the Rays still have some walking to do along this dark path.
Tomorrow might be the last home game, but the team still has one more goal in mind, one giant moment yet to savor and enjoy…One more celebration before the season ends. But that is for us to ponder tomorrow, tonight is the time to celebrate, enjoy and totally let the pressures of the last few weeks pour down your body like the droplets of champagne.
Now is the time to show the emotions and the feelings that have been bottled up waiting for this glorious moment. I think it is time for me to finish this bottle of champagne and then look to the heavens knowing this is the first of five celebrations.
As the Tampa Bay Rays players and staff assembled on the Tropicana Field turf after Sundays game in their “Loud Pants” ensembles for their chartered flight to New York it is apparent the team is trying to do evereything possible to again set the course of this Rays ship in the right direction. Losing 2 out of 3 against the pesky Angels this weekend did nothing for the Rays confidence level as they head into a critcal 4-game mosh with the New York Yankees.
Losing right now should be the last thing on the Rays menu right now The Tampa Bay Rays do not need to be sputtering at this important juncture of the season. The Rays need to resemble more of a classic muscle car (69 Camaro) and use their offensive horsepower to thrust right through the next two weeks with their hair on fire. This is not the time to become in any way timid or secure, then get trampled by letting another team get the best of them as they daydream of the future.
Every single team and players the Rays will play against during the duration of this 2010 season is going to try to knock the Rays off the post season mountain top and cause them stumble or flutter. The Orioles, Mariners and Royals have nothing to lose except a few 2011 MLB Draft positions. It will be on their immediate radar that if they can,as a spoiler team put their own late season exclamation point on their year by defeating the Rays in a game or shocking them in a series, they will do it in a New York minute.
But first the Rays have to digest firmly in their own minds that they will collectively begin to stop defeating themselves on the field. Small mistakes right now have shown huge reprecussions, and wins right now come at a premium price. I will give Desmond Jennings a break in getting thrown out in a rundown the other night because he might have misread a sign or the pitcher’s motion.
Rookies make those mistakes. But the Rays have to eliminate that possible mistake scenario and focus and adjust accordingly to what the opposition is going to give them for the rest of the season. Every single mistake no matter how small on the surface will be magnified and could be a key element towards a defeat. Eliminating simple mistakes could be a key component to the success or failure of this team over the next two weeks.
Right now the Rays are not playing to their true potential. For some reason they seem to shift into a defensive mode or shell after obtaining a lead and then try not to make critical mistakes instead of going out and playing the “Rays Way” and strongarm a team like the Angels.
The number of 1-run games recently played in by the Rays might not signal a offensive slowdown on the field, but the Rays current offense seems to be on a tethered leash and needs to break away soon. If not, the Rays might be packing for an away series in the American League Divisional Series instead of flaunting a home field advantage.
The Rays have given the Minnesota Twins ample time to rally and converge fast upon the Rays for a shot at homefield advantage in the post season, and might even give the Twins a chance topass both the Rays and New York Yankees soon and control their own postseason destiny.
That can not happen. The Twins must be kept down in the second or third seed range for the Rays to get a favorable match-up that provides them an honest chance to again get to the American League Championship Series. Any stumbles or bumbles from this point on gives not only the Yankees and Twins a “leg-up” on the Rays, but give the Texas Rangers a dose of confidence that the stumbling Rays might be an easier target to defeat in the post season.
The next four days in their series against the Yankees should be a major battle for the Rays to secure their second American League East title. Any deviation from the ultimate game plan could tumble the Rays into a second place scenario and then the Rays will have to await their possible opponent and fate after October 4th.
Most Rays fans have acknowledged that a split or better in this series is within the Rays firm grasp, and a falter at all to lose more than two games in this series will be the possible boot step the Yankees will use to secure the division and become clean and clear of the Rays carnage over their final games.
This is the time for the Rays veterans to come to the front and bring the young guys with them to blow this Yankee series and the Rays offensive machine into high gear. This is the time for destiny and fate to either join together in the Rays cause or see this team falter. The next four games will set the overall tone of the Rays final home stand, and provide the Rays with a chance for the enitre team to celebrate with the home fans instead of by themselves possibly in Kansas City.
Right now the stars are aligned for the Rays to possibly clinch next Sunday in front of the afternoon crowd at Tropicana Field. With a current “Magic Number” of 8, the Rays know that any loss, or wins by the Boston Red Sox, who also begin a 3-game series against the Baltimore Orioles tonight could put another banana peel on the Rays path to the post season. Winning right now provides a more solid foundation going into the final games and the playoffs.
It is as simple as Nike always says, “Just Do It”, and the Rayscan come home to the Trop late Thursday night for the last home stand with a renewed sense of gusto and bravado that will propel them into the playoffs.
The game plan is simple, just win and the rest will take of itself. But even the simplest of plans can run into hidden traps and slight deviations from the norm. For those trying moments,maybe another simple premise of “adjusting and conquering on the fly” will be in order to provide success for the Rays.
No need trying to complicate the rest of the year’s game plan. Winning breeds success and bolsters the positioning the Rays will need to rise to the top again. All we need now is a quick adjust ment or tune-up to our offensive machine, then the Rays can rev up those motors to rhe redline and get some much needed distance between themselves and those dastardly Twins and Yankees. Plus a few well placed wins also put the final dagger into the Red Sox still beating playoff heart. That in itself should be motivation enough.