BOSTON — It was after the Rays beat the Boston Red Sox on Sept. 12, a win that salvaged the finale of a three-game series at Tropicana Field and brought Tampa Bay to within 8˝ games of the first-place Red Sox, when Joe Maddon made what at the time seemed to be a bold statement. Yet, as fate had it, he was dead-on.
The Rays manager said his team, struggling to do anything right, would face the Red Sox again this season, even though that game was the final regular-season meeting between the rivals. So, for the Rays and Red Sox to meet again in 2013, it would have to be in the playoffs.
“It's going to come back at the right time,” Maddon said that night. “And we're going to get really hot at exactly the right time, because that's just the way this works.”
This is how it worked:
It came back to the Rays. They got really hot. They lost twice in Toronto last weekend to make for an arduous road back to Boston.
Yet here they are, playing the Red Sox this afternoon in Game 1 of the AL Division Series at Fenway Park.
“I have so much faith in our guys, I felt we could pull ourselves out of it once we got back into a better routine, quite frankly,” Maddon said Thursday afternoon. “I thought we could right ourselves, and we did.”
The Rays righted themselves just in time to stop the free-fall in Toronto, then crisscrossed the country earlier this week, winning a pair of win-or-go-home games to reach the Division Series for the first time since 2011.
Now it's the Red Sox.
“I did see us in this particular matchup,” said Matt Moore, who faces Jon Lester today.
Moore said he didn't foresee Monday's trip to Texas for the Game 163 tiebreaker. And, given the fact the Rays led the wild-card standings with three games to play, they expected the Cleveland Indians to travel Wednesday to Tropicana Field for the wild-card game.
But these are the Rays, and the Rays know they don't do anything easy.
“Absolutely,” Sam Fuld said. “We all say the same thing, 'The Rays Way is definitely not the easy way.' It's not how we drew up the ideal season at the beginning of the year. Ultimately, it doesn't matter how we get there. If we win the World Series, with each game by one run in 13 innings, that's just as good as blowing everybody out.”
The Rays started the final road trip of the regular season on Sept. 24 when they began a three-game series against the Yankees in New York. Since then they've played in four cities in two countries and a pair of time zones, had two champagne celebrations and advanced in the postseason for the first time since 2008, when they beat the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series to reach the World Series.
Alex Cobb, who beat the Indians on Wednesday, said he woke up Thursday in the fifth city of this extended road trip and didn't know where he was.
Then he saw a Budweiser can sitting on the night stand of his hotel room, noticed the Indians logo on the can, and realized it was from Wednesday's celebration at Progressive Field and guessed he was no longer in Cleveland.
“I knew it had to be Boston,” Cobb said.
So that's how the Rays reached Beantown. Not the most direct route, but they are in the position Maddon predicted a few weeks back.
“We had that feeling. We definitely didn't think it was over,” Cobb said. “Obviously, it took a little more work on our part. We never lost sight of our ultimate goal, and we knew we'd have to go through Boston to get there.”
The ultimate goal, of course, is winning the World Series.
To do that, the Rays have to find their way past the Red Sox, their biggest AL East rival. The Red Sox won 12 of the 19 games between the teams this season, including six of 10 in Boston. The Rays, though, won three of four during the last trip to Boston, including the final game of the four-game series that was postponed by rain and forced the Rays to travel back to Boston at the end of the road trip for the makeup game.
That and the Rays' history of success against the Red Sox, which includes winning the 2008 ALCS, always gives Tampa Bay confidence it can win inside Fenway Park. And if that isn't enough, the Rays have the steps they took to reach today's game to bolster their belief.
“Always searching for the good signs,” Maddon said. “I think it's quite an accomplishment, actually. You can't deny that. I think if we had been watching another team do what we just did, we would say that's quite an accomplishment.”