Rays can't let their thoughts betray them

BOSTON -- We watch B.J. Upton track a fly ball as if he's floating on butterfly wings. David Ortiz writes heroic chapters emulated in the backyards of New England, the big man's awesome feats retold. Through their talent and ability and discipline, we assume that baseball players are different than the rest of us.

But outside of winning the athletic gene pool, the players in uniform are just men, fragile prisoners of their own heads. They are prone to doubt and fear, powerful commodities that can turn even the best players into 6-foot-3, 200-pound quivering mounds of Jell-O.

And for the Tampa Bay Rays, who are fearless but suddenly all too human, it is the thinking about it all that will determine whether they advance to the World Series, or whether the Terry Francona-led Red Sox once again prove implausibly to be the toughest out in recent baseball history ("This one is on Francona. He cost us the season," a group of Sox fans groused in the top of the seventh, storming out of the ballpark and away from history). Even the Joe Torre-can't-be-killed Yankees never cheated this much baseball death.

And since Carl Crawford and Dan Wheeler and friends are just human, one thought will buzz around their heads, persistent and annoying as a fly:

    Why are we still playing right now?

    We shouldn't even be out here.

    This series should be over.

If the Rays still want to go to the World Series, Upton, James Shields, Evan Longoria and company must swat the fly.

Thus, the final weekend of American League baseball comes down to a single, dramatic confrontation -- the Rays' ability to kill the fly against the energized Red Sox making a champion's last stand, although they are unsure of how much of the Josh Beckett who dominated the 2003 and 2007 postseasons remains.

The real battle for the Rays isn't with the Red Sox, whom they know they can beat, but with their own heads. Each time an umpire squeezes a Tampa Bay pitcher's strike zone this weekend, or a flare drops in and drives in a Red Sox run, or something over the course of Games 6 and/or 7 doesn't go their way, they will hear the buzz.

    Why are we out here? We shouldn't even be playing right now.

It is a human response, and more than just a little creepy. The Rays were up in the seventh inning by seven runs (7-0, no less), with seven outs remaining to advance to the World Series and were beaten by No. 34, Ortiz (3 + 4 = 7) and by J.D. Drew, who just so happens to wear No. 7.

But I digress …

Tampa Bay knows this series should be over, and yet the Rays need to recall other, more pertinent facts: They have been the better team (not just in this series but all season); they have, with the exception of the first six innings of this series and the final 2 1/3 innings of Game 5, dominated this series; they are home with their best pitcher on the mound, needing to win just one game instead of two; and in the past four games they have scored 38 runs and battered each of Boston's starting pitchers, including Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who had held them scoreless in Game 1.

The Rays must win; the domino effect from devastating collapses can derail entire franchises, including this dynasty-in-waiting. There are certain moments that define the future, even if the particulars try to wash the pain away with clichés ("We just have to get this one out of our system," Rays manager Joe Maddon said after the game, as if they'd just lost a June tough one to the Orioles). The storied, $200 million New York Yankees have not yet recovered from blowing a 3-0 lead to the Red Sox in 2004. The Cleveland Indians spent 2008 in disarray, and two big players from a team that was one win from the World Series -- Casey Blake and CC Sabathia -- made the playoffs with two other clubs.

And the evidence lies in things not seen, things that cannot be explained. In Boston, the fans know this. The Patriots had an opportunity to accomplish an unparalleled feat; no team in NFL history has had a perfect 19-0 season. They lost, and thanks to fate and injury, won't even have the chance to avenge last season.

Maddon knows this, because on the night of Oct. 26, 2002, he was on the other side, in the Anaheim Angels' dugout, eight outs away from losing the World Series to the San Francisco Giants. The Giants were up 5-0 with one out and nobody on in the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 6.

Then Scott Spiezio hit a three-run homer off Felix Rodriguez to make it 5-3. The Angels scored three in the seventh and three in the eighth and forced a deciding game.

And it was palpable. The next night, John Lackey became a hero, a rookie winning a World Series Game 7, and Maddon got a championship ring. And the fly buzzed through each distracted San Francisco at-bat.

    We shouldn't even be out here.

Nothing in San Francisco has been the same. Dusty Baker, who as much as Peter Magowan and Barry Bonds re-energized a franchise that seemed headed for, yes, St. Petersburg, Fla., left with wounds that have never healed on either side.

We should be World Series champs.

There are more examples of failure, of course, but also stories of recovery that the Rays may want to consider. In the 2001 World Series, Arizona suffered consecutive, devastating road losses to the Yankees ("Byung-Hyun Kim, line one…"), but going home beat the Yankees twice in an epic finale.

And in Boston, they know this, too. Six years ago, the Celtics overcame a nearly 30-point second-half deficit to beat the New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference finals. The momentum had shifted. The Nets had collapsed.

And then the Celtics failed to win another game in the series.

The mind plays the worst tricks in baseball, a sport whose greatest drama is derived from its utter lack of speed. Unlike its breakneck counterparts that leave little time to contemplate, in baseball -- at the plate, in the field waiting for a ball to come your way, sitting in the dugout waiting for your turn at-bat -- players have nothing but time to think about what they will do, or what they should have done. With so much time in between action, thinking often trumps instinct.

If they aren't careful, and mentally resilient, the Rays will think themselves right out of the playoffs. If they can swat the fly, they can win.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.