Tampa Bay Rays

Rays' dream season comes to bitter end

PHILADELPHIA -- They were a resilient bunch, these 2008 Tampa Bay Rays.

They laughed at their sorry history and smiled at their many doubters.

They were fazed by neither.

Injuries? Losing streaks? Game 7 against the Boston Red Sox? They brushed them aside, conquering everything in their path.

Until they reached South Philly.

The Rays couldn’t win there.And so, the most wonderful, incredible, enjoyable baseball season ever experienced in Tampa Bay came to end on a cold night at Citizens Bank Park.

It was the Philadelphia Phillies 4, Rays 3 in Game 5 of the World Series, which started Monday but was suspended until Wednesday because of rain, to claim the 104th World Series four games to one.

“It’s a sad moment,” Rocco Baldelli said in an emptying clubhouse. “I don’t want this season to end. It’s been as much fun as I had playing baseball. I’d like to come back (tonight) and play another game.”

The Big Ray Machine was the surprise of the summer, darlings for those who love the underdog.

They escaped 10 straight losing seasons, nine of which ended in last-place finishes, to win the American League East title and then the American League pennant, after beating the Chicago White Sox in the American League Division Series and holding off the Red Sox in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

Four times they celebrated with champagne.

“It made you feel like a kid again,” Carl Crawford said.

The Rays won 97 games in the regular season and eight more in the postseason, changing the way everyone –- outsiders, themselves –- viewed the organization.

“Our minds have been stretched,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Everything about us has been stretched. I don’t think our guys are ever going to be satisfied going home in October again.”

But the magic that carried this team throughout the season disappeared in the World Series.

The heart of the order, Evan Longoria and Carlos Peña, didn’t get their first hits until Game 5.

The bullpen, one of the best in baseball all season, was leaky. The defense, the backbone of this team, was shaky.

Still, the Rays arrived at the park Wednesday confident they could take the series back to Tropicana Field.

They viewed the suspended game and their impromptu trip to Wilmington, Del., for a hotel that could accommodate their traveling party of 170 as more karma for a team that thought fate had a locker in the clubhouse.

Tied at 2-2 for 46 hours, the Phillies took a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the sixth only to see Baldelli tie the score in the seventh when he drilled a pitch from Ryan Madson into the left-field seats.

That took a little steam out of the Philly fans, who returned for one more night at Citizens Bank, waving their white towels, hoping to erase 28 years of frustration since the Phillies last World Series title.

But the fans came back to life when Pat Burrell doubled off the top of the center field wall in the bottom of the inning for his first hit of the series. Pinch-runner Eric Bruntlett scored on a single by Pedro Feliz, and the Phillies had the run they needed for the second championship in their 126-year history.

Fireworks exploded over the ballpark after the final out as the Phillies mobbed each other on the field and the fans, if you can believe it, yelled louder than they had during any of these three games.

The Rays retreated to their clubhouse, where J.P. Howell, the losing pitcher, sat in front of his locker and wept.

“I don’t think we have anything to be ashamed off,” Longoria said. “I don’t think it really sunk in yet. I feel we’re going home to play more baseball.”

The Rays had the kind of season no one wanted to see end.

But it did.

In the World Series of all places.“To experience this moment that so many people don’t get to experience, I feel so blessed,” Peña said. “This was magical.”