Thursday, October 23, 2008
Win or lose, Maddon's Rays remain even-keeled
By Jerry Crasnick ESPN.com
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon doesn't have a lot of rules, but he's resolute about this 30-minute routine: The Rays are given a half hour after games to celebrate wins or fret over losses. And there's no adjusting for inflation just because a game is a little more important.
Say, for instance, the franchise's very first appearance in the World Series.
The Rays, last seen swigging champagne after a seven-game elimination of Boston in the ALCS, dropped a 3-2 decision to the Phillies at Tropicana Field on Wednesday night to go down 1-0 in the Series. But they responded with the same even-tempered approach and sense of perspective that seem so impressive for such a young, untested group.
By the time the box score was posted on the Internet, they were shrugging off the result like 25 happy amnesiacs.
"Have you seen our faces?" said first baseman Carlos Pena. "We know how to take a loss. We know how to take a punch. It wasn't even necessary to say anything. I just told guys, 'Hey, we got beat today. Let's come back tomorrow.' And that was the end of it."
A Tampa lineup that blitzed Boston pitching for 16 homers in the ALCS was nowhere to be found against the Phillies. Carl Crawford contributed a solo shot, but B.J. Upton, Pena and Evan Longoria went hitless with five strikeouts in 12 at-bats against Cole Hamels and the Philadelphia bullpen.
All the scouting reports and video in the world can't prepare hitters for the real thing, and the Rays seemed flustered by the different looks they faced in the opener. First Hamels baffled them with fastballs and changeups. Then Ryan Madson overwhelmed them with harder fastballs and changeups. And finally, Phillies closer Brad Lidge showed up with a primo slider and encountered little resistance in converting his 47th straight save opportunity this season.
Nobody had a more challenging night than Upton. He showed off his throwing arm by nailing Shane Victorino at the plate in the second inning. But his offensive contribution consisted of two double-play groundouts, a foul pop, a strikeout and five runners left on base.
Upton looked overanxious in the batter's box and spent too much time swinging from his heels. Worse yet, the television replays didn't do him any favors. Let's put it this way: He didn't appear to be running with a great sense of urgency on either double-play grounder.
After the game, Upton maintained that he was going full-bore on both balls. He spoke without a trace of defensiveness, but smiled in a manner that suggested he's heard the question before. In fairness, the second double-play grounder came on a pitch that he smoked to third baseman Pedro Feliz.
Carlos Pena got picked off by Cole Hamels in the sixth inning, but the Rays claim it was a balk.
"It was a one-hop line drive to him," Upton said. "The ball was basically at second base before I was out of the box. There's nothing you can do."
Momentum is a tenuous thing. And while the Phillies faced numerous questions coming into the World Series about how they would respond to an extended layoff, you have to wonder if Tampa Bay's emotional series against Boston sapped the Rays of a little energy.
The Rays seemed a tick off from start to finish in the opener. Pena was fortunate to reach base on a Ryan Howard error to start the sixth inning, then nullified the Rays' big break when he was caught stealing on a Hamels' pickoff. The Rays screamed from the dugout that Hamels had committed a balk, but no one in the umpiring crew agreed.
"In my opinion, it was a balk all the way," Pena said. "But that's part of the game. Sometimes calls do not go your way. I thought they caught some breaks tonight. They got a lot of bloop hits. They hit the ball soft enough that we couldn't turn a double play. Things like that."
Scott Kazmir, whose biggest problem recently has been a penchant for running up huge early pitch counts, got away with an economical 19 pitches in the first inning. But a fastball that Kazmir wanted to throw on the outside corner to Chase Utley drifted over the inner half of the plate, and Utley made him pay with a two-run homer to put the Rays down 2-0.
"He's different than most left-handed hitters," Kazmir said of Utley. "Most of them have more of a long swing, but he has that short, quick swing and he gets his hands through the zone really quick. I already knew that from watching video. But you just have to learn on the go."
This was a recurrent theme in the Tampa Bay clubhouse: Longoria knew that Hamels was good, but he didn't realize precisely how good. The Rays knew that the Phillies fight hard, play fundamentally sound ball and are aggressive on the base paths, but nothing quite compares to seeing those tendencies up close and in person.
Anybody who thought the Rays would roll over the Phillies because they play against superior competition in the American League should be disabused of that notion very quickly.
"To beat a team like the Phillies, you have to be mistake-free," said reliever J.P. Howell. "It's similar to Boston. The games are going to be long and they're going to be tight. We didn't know that, but now we do."
With 104 wins in the books this season, the Rays really do know what it means to take a punch. It's worth noting that they dropped the ALCS opener against Boston before coming back to win in seven.
From all appearances Wednesday, the middle-of-the-order guys didn't even exhaust their 30-minute lamentation allotment before showering, dressing and heading home for a good night's sleep.
"We've all been in this situation before," Longoria said. "It just so happens the microscope is on us a little bit more now in the World Series. I don't think any of us will go home and have nightmares about it. We get to come back tomorrow and play another game in October."
And, quite possibly, five or six more games. Just a hunch, but the Rays and Phillies probably have a lot more baseball ahead of them before October ends.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.