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Out of Game 5 collapse came ’09 free agents

Super Joe Maddon earned his manager of the year awards that October night in Boston. He sure did.

With the Rays a win away from the World Series and the Red Sox reeling from a couple of beat downs in their own park, Maddon sent a shaky Scott Kazmir to the mound, saving James Shields for a Game 6*.

(* If necessary.)

“A Ray of Dope,” screamed one headline.

“I’m very glad that we were able to provide that kind of entertainment,” Maddon said before Game 5 of last year’s American League Championship Series.

Oh, it was entertaining, all right.

The Rays jumped all over Dice-K and Manny Delcarmen.

Kazmir allowed two hits and zero runs.

The Rays led 7-0 in the middle of the seventh.

The Rays were headed to the World Series.

True story: A writer sitting a few seats to my left in the Fenway Park press box actually cancelled his morning flight back to Tampa. He figured he would take a few days off before heading south for the World Series.

It was about that moment when Grant Balfour began giving up hits and runs. One of those runs was a blast by David Ortiz.

Suddenly, Maddon wasn’t so super, though he nailed it with his decision to start Kazmir. It was bullpen that finally gave in.

The defending World Series champion Red Sox staged the second biggest comeback in postseason history by a team facing elimination, earning an 8-7 victory. You had to go all the way back to Game 4 of the 1929 World Series for a bigger collapse. That’s when the Athletics rallied from 8-0 to beat the Cubs 10-8.

It was that kind of night. Some scrambled for the record books, while others scrambled to re-book flights.

Of course, we know what happened next. Everybody eventually made it to Tampa Bay, where the Red Sox pushed the series to a Game 7.

Matt Garza, Rocco Baldelli, Willy Aybar and David Price took over from there.

The Rays did indeed go to the World Series.

Maybe those two extra games against the Red Sox sapped the Rays of the energy they needed to beat the Phillies. Fernando Perez said no. Trever Miller, now with the Cardinals, thinks yes.

The Rays are back in Boston for the first time since Game 5 of the ALCS. Weather permitting, they will open the season today against the Red Sox.

Could they have returned as defending World Series champs had they not been forced to the wire by the Red Sox? Maybe a more rested Rays team would have continued the magic against the Phillies.

Maybe not. The Phillies were awfully good last October.

Who knows?

But those two extra games did have a tangible impact on the Rays.

You see designated hitter Pat Burrell?

You see outfielder Gabe Kapler?

How about the new arms in the bullpen? David Shouse. Joe Nelson.

The Rays were able to increase the payroll because of revenue generated by those two extra home games in the ALCS.

Now, they might have been able to afford Burrell, who signed a two-year, $16 million deal, without the benefit of Game 6 and 7. But they might not have been able to get Kapler or one of the arms for the bullpen. And maybe they would have had to allow one of their arbitration-eligible players to walk.

Or, maybe they wouldn’t have the money for Burrell.

We don’t know.

But with Burrell and Kapler, the Rays are better this season against left-handed pitchers than they were last season. And with Burrell, they have a someone capable of hitting 30 home runs and driving in 100 RBIs. With Burrell they have a heart of a batting order that should cause opposing pitchers to lose some sleep.

The Rays are back at Fenway Park for the first time since that stunning collapse. A collapse that was supposed to be the beginning of the end of the 2008 Rays.

There was no way to know it at the time, but it was actually the start of the 2009 Rays.