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Bob Ryan

Up against a youthful dream team

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / October 15, 2008
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If patriotism is supposed to be the last refuge for scoundrels, then referencing history is the last refuge for shocked fans who have just seen their team fall behind, three games to one, in an American League Championship Series.

"A lot of people were yelling things at us in the stands," said Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Carl Crawford, who had just become the third man in LCS history to go 5 for 5. "One guy was yelling, 'Go ask Derek Jeter.' He was really loud. Everybody heard him. There's going to be a lot more of that."

It's a grim scenario for the Red Sox and their fans. The Rays pounded the Sox, 13-4, last night for their third straight win. This is a Sox team on which some people know what it's like to come back from a 3-0 deficit, and several more know what it's like to come back from 3-1. But asking a franchise to do the Lazarus act for the third time in five years? Is that asking a bit too much?

It's doable, right? Dice-K throws another gem tomorrow. Beckett finds himself Saturday. Lester goes back to being Lester on Sunday. The Tampa Bay bats cool off and the world returns to normal. Sounds nice and simple.

On the other hand . . . it's worse than you think. Tampa Bay probably will win, and then the fans around here will have to face facts, the primary one being this: The Tampa Bay Rays are not just good, but young good.

The catcher is 24, the first baseman is 30, the second baseman is 29, the shortstop is 28, the third baseman is 23, the left fielder is 27, and the center fielder is 24. They don't have a steady right fielder yet, but they're working on it.

The starting pitchers? Don't ask. Scott Kazmir is 24. Matt Garza is 24. Andy Sonnanstine is 25. Edwin Jackson is 25.

And then there's tomorrow's Game 5 starter, James Shields.

"They call me the old man of the staff because I'm 26 years old and the oldest guy on the staff," he says. "It's kind of an ongoing joke in the clubhouse."

The Red Sox aren't laughing, and neither are the Yankees, Blue Jays, or Orioles. These guys from Florida could be an impediment to their AL East success for many more years.

The bullpen? More trouble. Grant Balfour is 30. Dan Wheeler is 30. J.P. Howell is 25.

Remember when the youth and - ha! - the "inexperience" was supposed to be an issue? When was that, exactly? Was it when they had a 20-10 May to announce their intention of being in the race? Was it their 16-10 June? Oh, that's right. It was that seven-game losing streak heading into the All-Star break. But wait a minute. Hadn't they won 12 of 13 prior to that little dip? Didn't that count?

All that youth and inexperience was a real hindrance in the second portion of the season, wasn't it? With all that youth and inexperience, how did they manage to win 15 of their 20 second-half series, including the two September biggies with the Red Sox, and how did they win a three-game series on seven occasions after losing Game 1? That's not possible if you're loaded with kids, is it?

People on the outside waited for them to collapse. And waited. And waited. And waited.

Hey, Mr. Godot, how 'bout them Rays?

Yeah, how 'bout 'em? Since their 2-0 defeat in Game 1 of this series, they have outscored the Red Sox, 31-13. They have banged out 39 hits, including seven doubles, two triples, and 10 home runs.

The 2 through 5 men in their order are doing OK. B.J. Upton, who's been playing hurt for two years, looks healed up. He had three hits and a triple in his final 10 at-bats against the White Sox in the Division Series and he's had two titanic home runs in this series.

Carlos Peña also has had two home runs. Evan Longoria has had three homers and two doubles. Carl Crawford was reasonably sharp last night: 5 for 5 with three runs, two doubles, and a triple.

This was supposed to be a somewhat offensively challenged team. Its strengths were top-to-bottom pitching and a very solid defense. So what exactly is going on?

"We are at the point now where we are swinging at strikes," explains manager Joe Maddon. "We're not expanding our strike zone, which is one of our hugest goals coming into spring training, and I'm loving that part of it."

Makes sense. Part B is that the world is seeing the complete Tampa Bay team. They played a month without spectacular rookie third baseman Longoria and six weeks without Crawford, the multi-skilled outfielder who made it back to the lineup just in time for the playoffs from a thumb injury. And the world is seeing the true Coming Out Party for a frightening 24-year old talent by the name of B.J. Upton.

"Longoria and B.J," said Crawford. "Those guys are so gifted physical-wise."

Crawford is a feel-good story. He was the team's best player when winning 75 games was a distant dream. Now he finds himself surrounded by premium No. 1 draft picks such as Upton and Longoria, a second and a third pick in the entire draft, respectively. These young guys can play. And Crawford is pretty good himself.

"He does things normal people don't do," says Longoria.

And then there's the pitching. Maddon's young rotation is so deep he was able to leave 14-game winner Jackson off the ALDS roster. Jackson is now in the bullpen, which gives the Rays yet another guy who throws gas. It's almost criminal.

The trick now is for them not to get ahead of the story. Being up, 3-1, doesn't get you to the World Series, but it does allow you to dream a bit.

"We're getting closer," says Crawford. "There's a nice vibe around here."

"It's OK to think about the World Series," says Peña, something of a graybeard at 30. "But then you forget about it and focus when you step to the plate."

The Rays are here. Today. Tomorrow. Next year. Go ahead. Yell all you want. They'll just laugh.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

American League Championship Series
Series Overview
3
wins
3
FROM TODAY'S GLOBE
ALCS ESSENTIALS
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