SAN DIEGO — They could walk the city streets in the Gaslamp Quarter and not a soul would recognize them.
They are as anonymous as the seafood taco vendors in town.
They are the Tampa Bay Rays, and you better start to get to know them.
The Rays finally knocked off the bullies off the AL East, the New York Yankees, 2-1, Friday night, advancing to the American League Championship Series for only the second time in franchise history.
And, oh, how it was only fitting that Mike Brosseau was the hero, hitting the biggest home run in Rays’ history off Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman in a 10-pitch at-bat in the eighth inning.
It was a month ago, Sept. 1, to be exact, when Chapman threw a pitch up and over his head in retaliation to the Rays’ pitching up-and-in to the Yankees. Both benches emptied. Chapman was suspended three games, but still hasn't served it. And the Rays vowed sweet revenge,
Oh, baby, did it ever come, taking them to the ALCS against the Houston Astros.
The low-budged Rays, whose entire payroll is barely more than Yankees ace Gerrit Cole’s annual $36 million salary, are a lovable group.
Rays pinch-hitter Michael Brosseau hits the game-winning homer in the eighth inning. (Photo: Gary A. Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)
You will see them employ a four-man outfield, although they needed a fifth one in the stands to catch Aaron Judge’s homer in the fourth.
They invented the “opener.’’
They don’t believe in a traditional closer, using 13 different relievers to save games this season.
They do all kinds of goofy things that ultimately work.
They showed off all their gimmicks Friday.
They started Tyler Glasnow on two days’ rest, pulled him with a no-hits after 2 ⅓ innings, and then summoned reliever, Nick Anderson, in the third inning.
Their ace, Blake Snell, who could have pitched on three days’ rest just like Cole, and was supposed to follow Glasnow in the game, instead he was nothing more than a decoy.
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“This is Rays baseball at its finest,” said Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, their longest tenured player. “We sit here and we talk about never depending on one person each and every night. We have our guys, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just you never know who’s going to be the hero. Who’s ’s going to step up with the big strikeout? The big hit? The big defensive play?"
Yep, the Rays’ way.
“They’re pretty loose, a loose personality,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I think the best description is just how much they care about each other and support, regardless of who's in the lineup, who's not. Who's pinch-hitting and who's not.
“They care so much, as much as any team that I've ever been around and embracing the role of it doesn't matter who gets it done, we're going to get it done together.
“And that makes it a lot of fun to be around.’’
Certainly, it’s not as if the Rays mastered Cole by any means, who was pitching on short rest for the first time in his eight-year career. The Rays, seeing Cole for the fourth time in a span of 11 games, still haven’t beaten the man. They produced only one hit of him, a homer by Austin Meadows in the fifth that ended their 0-for-32 slump, going back to the fourth inning in Game 4.
But, man, they sure made him work, and even threatened to knock him out of the game in the first inning.
Cole walked two batters, hit another, and fell behind Joey Wendle on a 3-0 count before striking him out looking. Cole screamed into the night, turned around, and glared at the Rays’ bench, who had been awfully loud during their rally. Still, Cole needed 25 pitches just to get through the inning, and wound up departing after 5 1/3 innings.
Once it went bullpen mano y mano, the Yankees were out-manned.
Their lone run was provided by Judge, who had been in a 2-for-27 slump, when he homered in the right-field seats off Anderson. It was Judge’s third homer of his career in a postseason elimination game, tying Didi Gregorius, Bill Skowron and Yogi Berra for most homers by a Yankee in franchise history.
Still, despite the Yankees’ power, and check-book muscle, the Rays proved they can play with the big boys, beating them for the 11th time in 15 games, as David finally beat Goliath.
“If I had an explanation for why we’ve been beating the Yankees this year,’’ Cash said, “we would have done it a long time ago. For many years, they’ve had their way with us.’’
The torch was passed Friday evening, 3,000 miles away, in a neutral site, in the middle of a pandemic.
Considering the Tampa Lightning just won the Stanley Cup, and the Tampa Buccaneers with Tom Brady are sitting in first place in the NFC South, maybe something magical is going on in the waters in the Tampa-St. Pete area.
“This run for the Tampa teams is pretty great, I have to say,’’ said Pete Fairbanks, who pitched two shutout innings. “If we can pull off the Boston trifecta, that would be something. I don’t know if they’ve ever done it, but they always seem to be in the hunt for the last 10 years.
“To steal a little bit of that thunder would be great.’’
The Rays Way.
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