ST. PETERSBURG – When the week began, they were not deemed worthy of prime time.
They had flown from Toronto to Oakland to Houston and back home to Tampa Bay in six days, and Major League Baseball’s TV and scheduling aficionados decided the Rays should set their alarms early to be the opening act in a four-pack of playoff games on Monday.
After all, the Tampa Bay Rays aren’t sexy. They’re not hip. They may not even be the Tampa Bay Rays much longer.
And yet, 48 hours later, they are threatening to pull off one of the greatest October upsets imaginable.
A bunch of anonymous relievers, a supposedly non-lethal lineup and a manager not named Joe Maddon combined to beat Justin Verlander and the Houston Astros 4-1 in Game 4 of the American League Division Series Tuesday night.
So what do you think of the Rays now, America?
"I’m sure a lot of people are surprised. I promise you the guys in this clubhouse aren’t surprised,'' said centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier. "We’re not a big market team. We don’t have the most popular guys compared to other teams out there. I always say we have a ton of above average, quality players making names for themselves.''
In case you haven’t been paying attention to the box scores, this is a pretty interesting little ballclub. Pretty darned good, too.
Or did you not see Willy Adames Tuesday night?
The Rays 24-year-old shortstop hit his second home run in as many games, and uncorked one of the sweetest relay throws you’ll ever see to cut down Jose Altuve at the plate and snuff out Houston’s most promising rally.
How about Tommy Pham? Have you caught his postseason act?
Pham is what passes for a veteran star in Tampa Bay’s lineup, even though his $4.1 million salary is roughly a quarter of what Astros left fielder Michael Brantley makes. Except Pham is hitting .429 in the playoffs and Brantley is hitting .125.
And I bet you don’t even know who Kevin Cash is.
The Tampa native is one of the longest-tenured – and at 41, still one of the youngest – managers in the game. He’ll probably finish behind Rocco Baldelli and Aaron Boone in Manager of the Year voting, but Cash won 96 games with baseball’s smallest payroll. And in Game 4 Tuesday night, he deftly managed a parade of relievers over nine innings to shut down a lineup of stars.
“We’re good. Everybody uses the word resilient and that’s great but we’re also very good,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “You can use that word resilient over and over and in a way it’s kind of knocking us. The truth is this is a very good team.”
The Rays finally hit prime time by default Tuesday night after the Yankees graciously swept the Twins and decided to take the night off. And so what a greater swath of America finally got to see was a team that doesn’t just defy expectations but also, at times, description.
There is really no rational explanation for how the Rays have the American League’s top seed sweating bullets this morning. The Astros smoked the Rays in Games 1 and 2 in Houston, and looked like they were just getting warmed up. Verlander and Cole had combined to throw 14.2 shutout innings with 23 strikeouts in the first two games, and were poised to come back for Games 4 and 5.
When the Rays broke out the bats and home runs in Game 3, it seemed like an appropriate coda for the season. They could walk away from 2019 knowing they had played six months of great baseball, had won a wild card game and had refused to go down gently against Houston.
And then Tampa Bay came out and did it again on Tuesday night.
“Charlie Morton changed the environment in Game 3,” Cash said. "And we come back today and it was just an incredible atmosphere. Unbelievable."
Three days ago, the upper deck at Tropicana Field looked like the auditorium of a down-on-its-luck middle school.
The stairs appeared as if they hadn’t been painted in years, and some of the seats were covered in dust. If you looked closely enough, you could see the air conditioning gently blowing cobwebs underneath the second row in Section 301. These were among the loneliest seats in Major League Baseball.
The upper deck at the Trop was closed for the 2019 regular season, and was not often populated before that.
Yet for the past two nights, the 300 level was alive again with happy, screaming, long-lost Tampa Bay baseball fans.
You want to know how good the 2019 Rays are?
That’s how good.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.