Rays' improbable run rolls on into World Series

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For Rocco Baldelli, the American League pennant translates to more than glory, fulfillment or a wad of extra Christmas cash. The second-longest-
tenured Tampa Bay Ray behind fellow outfielder Carl Crawford is safe to go home to Rhode Island, to a rabid corner of Red Sox Nation, and hit the mall this winter without seeking refuge behind dark glasses and a three-day growth.

Shortly after the Rays beat Boston 3-1 in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series -- amid the noise and unbridled joy in their formerly charmless barn of a home park -- Baldelli accepted congratulations for knocking in the winning run. Then he took the liberty of looking past October to a winter filled with bragging rights over Boston.

"This might sound funny to everyone, but I don't want to go home and have to see every single person that I know rub it in my face every single day for the rest of my life," Baldelli said. "And that would happen [if we lost]. I'm 100 percent serious. To beat those guys and not have to listen to everyone where I live, it's a nice feeling."

The 24 other Rays, who don't spend much time in the town of Woonsocket, R.I., can contemplate different fringe benefits. Designated hitter Cliff Floyd, who's nearing the end of his career, is about to make his first World Series appearance since 1997, when he won a title with the Florida Marlins. Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, Crawford and Tampa's other young stars have an opportunity to display their wondrous skills on the ultimate stage.

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, who has spent the past three weeks regaling the national media with his expansive vocabulary, innovative take on baseball strategy and fondness for rock music, is about to find a bigger and more appreciative audience for his insights and bon mots.

And for rookie left-hander David Price … well … we'll get back to him in a moment.

For those hard-core types who believe in the notion of scouting, drafting, developing and building a roster on sound baseball judgments rather than on a big checkbook, it's a moment to savor in spite of the anticipated meager TV ratings. The Rays survived 10 straight losing seasons, some memorable Lou Piniella tantrums, the Jose Canseco-Greg Vaughn "Hit Show" experiment and a multitude of other missteps to reach this point, but the depth of their suffering has made the act of reaching the summit only more gratifying.

So say it slowly, and with feeling: Tampa Bay is headed to the World Series.

Just when it seemed as if the Little Engine That Could had run off its rails, the Rays prolonged their season through the most improbable of scenarios. After dropping two straight games to a Boston team that's conditioned to smell blood, the Rays took a deep breath, relaxed and reclaimed their destiny.

They won with a superb effort from starter Matt Garza, who threw 118 pitches, worked into the eighth inning and outperformed Boston's Jon Lester. Garza deftly mixed a live fastball and exceptional curve, and he retreated to the clubhouse each inning to review his game plan with former big leaguer Brian Anderson, the assistant to pitching coach Jim Hickey.

"I felt like I was watching my kid pitch," Anderson said. "My hands were all clammy and everything."

The Rays got a huge home run from Willy Aybar in the seventh inning and ran through four relievers when Maddon began to channel Tony La Russa in the eighth. Reliever No. 4 generated the biggest buzz -- for obvious reasons.

Price, an imposing 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, was considered the crown jewel of the 2007 draft when the Rays chose him first overall out of Vanderbilt. He burned through the minors with a 12-1 record and 2.30 ERA in three stops this season and flashed signs of brilliance when the Rays summoned him from Triple-A Durham in mid-September. When Price pitched 5 1/3 effective innings out of the bullpen in his big league debut at Yankee Stadium, it was clear the kid was impervious to pressure.

"Maturity is the main thing," reliever J.P. Howell said. "The really good players don't think about the very end of the game or 'three more outs.' They think about right now, this pitch, one pitch at a time. That's something that takes years to learn, but David has it right now."

Still, could anyone beyond the Rays' inner circle have envisioned this performance? By the time Maddon called upon his secret weapon in the eighth inning with two outs and the bases loaded, the Rays seemed fresh out of options. Price quickly squashed the Red Sox's comeback hopes, throwing 97 mph fastballs mixed with 87 mph sliders and striking out J.D. Drew with the bases loaded to end a Boston threat.

After the top of the ninth inning ended, when Akinori Iwamura fielded Jed Lowrie's bad-hop grounder and stepped on second base to force Jason Bay for the final out, the scene at Tropicana Field was more chaotic than Joe the Plumber's front lawn the morning after the last presidential debate. And there was Price, on the bottom of the pig pile.

"I couldn't breathe," Price said, "but I wouldn't trade that moment risking my life for anything."

It was Price's first career save, obviously. At 23, he's the third-youngest pitcher ever to save a deciding Game 7 in a League Championship Series. Only Don Gullett and Byung-Hyun Kim did the same feat at a more tender age.

"It's a little bit bigger than the SEC championship, but with the composure he has, he's never intimidated," Hickey said.

"His career has launched," Floyd said of Price. "As in, Cape Canaveral."

Is Price about to become the Francisco Rodriguez of the 2008 postseason? Who knows? After Tampa's bullpen blew a seven-run lead with seven outs remaining in Game 5 at Fenway Park, Maddon heard some second-guessing about his decision to have righty Grant Balfour pitch to David Ortiz. If the Rays weren't so mentally tough, Ortiz's three-run homer might have gone down as the swing that sent Boston on its way.

Now nobody remembers Big Papi's big momentum changer. In Tampa Bay's new fairy-tale world, there's a place for managerial do-overs.

The Rays will refrain from working out Monday and instead catch their breath while the Phillies take batting practice at Tropicana Field. Judging from the energy that Iwamura displayed when he sprinted along the top of the dugout high-fiving fans, the Tampa Bay players will have plenty in the tank after a good night's sleep.

Floyd, a physical wreck and emotional anchor to his teammates during the tough times, stood in the infield after the victory cradling his young daughter in his arms. While music blared over the loudspeakers, he took in the scene and tried to commit it to memory.

"It's amazing what can happen when you put a bunch of athletes on the field and start to believe," he said.

Amazing, indeed.

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.