ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. | For months, the Tampa Bay Rays defied expectations. They refused to fold and embraced an underdog mentality that carried them to the American League pennant.
Now they find themselves in unfamiliar territory. All of a sudden, everyone expects them to win.
Tampa Bay enters its first World Series as favorites over the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies, a tag that was earned after a hard-fought victory over the Boston Red Sox in the AL Championship Series but still surprises its players.
“We’ve been the underdog so long, I don’t know what the [word] favorite is,” reliever Trever Miller said. “I don’t think they could spell it in this room.”
The Rays had better get used to the idea because baseball’s attention will be on them leading up to Game 1 on Wednesday night at Tropicana Field. Perhaps never before has a franchise transformed itself so rapidly from afterthought to the talk of sports.
Two weeks ago, who among baseball fans could pick B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Matt Garza or David Price out of a police lineup? Who knew manager Joe Maddon for anything other than his thick-rimmed glasses? Who knew the 31-year-old in the dress shirt was general manager Andrew Friedman?
Anonymous no more, the Rays are the story of the season and the focal point of the 104th World Series. All of which could leave the Phillies feeling left out.
”They went seven games [in the ALCS], so you got to talk about them more,” Philadelphia reliever Chad Durbin said. “But we’re just as hungry and just as eager to get out there and start the series off.”
The Phillies, who won 92 games in the regular season, have enjoyed a dominant playoff run. They dispatched the Milwaukee Brewers in four games and then the Los Angeles Dodgers in five. They boast one of the most potent lineups in the major leagues with former NL MVPs Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins and three-time All-Star Chase Utley.
And they come to their first World Series appearance in 15 years brimming with confidence.
“I definitely believe in destiny,” Philadelphia outfielder Jayson Werth said. “I’m not going to sit here and talk about what ifs and stuff like that. But I think we’re in a great position. We’re playing a team that has been playing well. But we’ve been playing good ball ourselves.”
Tampa Bay enters this series with momentum, just three days removed from its Game 7 win over the Red Sox. And since they stormed out to take an early lead in the AL East this season, the Rays have won the respect of their counterparts.
“They are a good baseball team,” Phillies reliever Scott Eyre said. “That’s not a fluke. It’s not a fluke that they beat the Red Sox and the Yankees all summer or beat anyone else for that matter. This is a good baseball team.”
Despite their success, the Rays boast little World Series experience. Only two active Rays have played in the World Series before (outfielder Cliff Floyd and reliever Dan Wheeler), and the team employs 11 players age 25 or younger.
The Rays have used their youthful energy to their advantage. They seem oblivious to all the hoopla, and they have remained determined since the season started to prove they could go from the worst team in the majors to World Series champions in one year.
”We had a lot of people who believed,” right-hander Matt Garza said. “There’s always got to be a first. And we said, ‘Why not be it this year?’ ”
Tampa Bay hasn’t yet experienced anything quite like it will Wednesday night. The question now is whether the Rays can handle it.
“We’re here,” Miller said. “Nobody expected us to be here. But we’re here now. And as competitors and athletes, we’re all about winning this thing.”