The Tampa Bay baseball franchise underwent a makeover in 2008. The franchise had never won more than 70 games in its history. On the surface they tweaked their nickname, going from “Devil Rays” to simply “Rays.” The renunciation of the devil worked wonders, as a more substantial makeover took place on the field. The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays stunned the baseball world with a trip to the World Series.
Tampa Bay did it with pitching. They had the second-best ERA in the American League, and the staff was exceptionally well-balanced. All five starters were between the ages of 24-26, they all won between 12-14 games, and the ERAs ranged in a tight window from 3.49 to 4.22.
The pitching was enough to overcome an offense that was below the league average in runs scored. Carlos Pena hit 31 home runs and 22-year-old Evan Longoria popped 27. But other than these two, and centerfielder B.J. Upton’s .383 on-base percentage, the Rays’ offense lacked the depth the pitching staff had.
Together, along with the leadership of third-year manager Joe Maddon, it was enough to win 97 games and outlast the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, and the New York Yankees, to win the AL East. Tampa then easily dispatched the Chicago White Sox, three games to one in the Division Series.
It set up a big battle in the 2008 American League Championship Series with the Red Sox. It was small market vs. big budget. It was a team in its first year of real success against the defending champions. While this writer is a Red Sox fan, it was the kind of series you knew that any fan without a direct rooting interest in Boston was virtually duty-bound to root for Tampa.
Tampa’s offense floundered in Game 1, as they lost 2-0, but a surprise power outburst saved them in the second game. The Rays got three home runs and chased Josh Beckett, a World Series hero one year earlier. The game was tied 8-8 and went to extra innings. In the 11th inning, a pair of walks set up Upton’s sacrifice fly to tie the series.
The Rays also get key help from a September call-up. Lefthander David Price got five crucial outs. Price’s pitching and the power outage set a tone for the series ahead.
Tampa traveled to Boston and for two games, and the better part of a third, just unloaded on Red Sox pitching. Four home runs keyed a 9-1 win in Game 3. Three more, along with a 5-for-5 night from Carl Crawford, led the way to a 13-4 rout in Game 4. A two-run homer by Upton in the first inning of Game 5 was followed by another bomb from Pena, a solo shot from Longoria and when Upton hit a two-run double in the seventh, the score was 7-0 and the Rays were nine outs from a pennant.
Boston had made its recent reputation on comebacks, from winning four straight against the New York Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series, to winning three straight elimination games in this same round against the Cleveland Indians one year earlier. None of that could have prepared a somber Fenway crowd for what was about to happen.
The Red Sox got one run across in the bottom of the seventh, and then David Ortiz hit a two-out, three-run shot to make it 7-4. J.D. Drew hit a two-run shot in the eighth. Coco Crisp singled in the tying run and only being thrown out on the bases ended in the inning. The biggest single-game comeback in postseason history was consummated in the ninth and the Red Sox won 8-7.
Tampa Bay still had two home games in their back pocket, but it seemed like the tide was irreversibly against them, especially when Boston took Game 6 by a 4-2 count, and Dustin Pedroia hit a solo home run in the first inning of Game 7. But these Rays showed they had a special resilience.
Matt Garza, the Game 3 winner, was on the mound, and he settled in and handcuffed the Boston bats the rest of the way. Longoria tied the game in the fourth with an RBI double. The Rays got the lead in the fifth and added some insurance in the seventh.
With the score 3-1, Boston had one more push left in them. An error started the top of the eighth, but Pedroia and Ortiz couldn’t get aboard. The Red Sox still loaded the bases and brought up the dangerous Drew. One more time, Maddon pulled the trigger and gave the ball to the untested Price.
The Price was right on this Sunday evening in Tampa. He struck out Drew and put down the Sox in the ninth. It hadn’t come easy, and the World Series would end in defeat to the Philadelphia Phillies. But the magical ride that was the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays season had achieved improbable heights with the franchise’s only American League pennant.