Tampa Bay Rays

Francona: 2008 wasn’t magical, Rays are for real

PORT CHARLOTTE

A manager of an American League East team sat in a dugout Friday and talked about how tough the division is, how the offseason moves made the other teams tougher, and how much better his team will have to play this season if they hope to return to the postseason.

And that manager wasn’t Joe Maddon.

It was Terry Francona, whose Boston Red Sox came within a ninth-inning hit of possibly winning Game 7 of the American League Championship Series last October and returning to the World Series.

Francona believes in his team.

He believes the New York Yankees will be tough to beat.

He believes the Tampa Bay Rays will be tough to beat, too.

“I think if we think, ‘Oh, they had a magical year and they’re not going to be around,’ we’re all crazy,” Francona said. “They’re not old, they’re not going to forget how to play. They certainly make our life a lot more difficult in the American League East.”

Francona said we shouldn’t use the word “magical” to describe the Rays’ run to the World Series in 2008. It’s not as if a fairy godmother showed up and turned the mice into J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour and a pumpkin into Jason Bartlett.

The Rays had the tools necessary to win — pitching and defense. They still have those tools, plus, as Francona mentioned, they are still a young team.

Pitching and defense tend to stick around, and good, young players tend to grow into better players.

It is a very real possibility that ’09, as Maddon likes to say, can be better than ’08.

“I think during the season we need to recognize that they are somebody,” Francona said.

How about that? One of the big two in the AL East acknowledging there is now a big three.

There are some who believe had Dan Johnson not hit that ninth inning homer off Jonathan Papelbon in Boston last season and the Rays not rallied in the ninth to win, that they would have dropped out of first with the loss and finished second to the Red Sox and, perhaps, lost in the ALDS to the Los Angeles Angels. Francona is not of that belief.

“If Dan Johnson doesn’t hit the home run, does that mean they couldn’t hold on? No. They did a very good job of holding us off,” Francona said. “We kept pushing and pushing, and they found ways to push back.”

The Red Sox pushed in September, and the Rays held them off.

They pushed in the ALCS, coming back from a 7-0 deficit in the seventh inning to win Game 5 in Boston, then won Game 6 at Tropicana Field to set up a winner-take-all Game 7. The Rays were done that night, right? Game7 belongs to Francona’s team, right?

Wrong. The Rays pushed back.

An AL East team did go to the World Series, but it wasn’t the Yankees, who missed the postseason, or the Red Sox, who won the series the year before.

It was the Rays.

A fluke?

No, said Maddon, who is paid to lead the Rays back to the World Series.

No, said Francona, who is paid to lead the Red Sox back to the World Series.

The Yankees, with their trio of free-agent studs, will make Francona’s job difficult.

And so will the Rays.

“They had a lot of ways to answer things last year,” Francona said.

Magical years are for one-year wonders, Francona said.

He sees nothing magical about the Rays.

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