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Rays: A doormat since the team's inception in 1998, Tampa Bay had never won more than 70 games in a season before this year. But the young and athletic Rays (97-65) were baseball's biggest surprise in 2008, winning the rugged AL East and staying in contention for the best record in the majors until the final weekend. Then, they eliminated the AL Central champion Chicago White Sox 3-1 in the division series and held off wild-card Boston in Game 7 of the ALCS behind series MVP Garza. Upton tormented the defending World Series champions, driving in 11 runs and finishing the series with 4 of Tampa Bay's ALCS-record 16 homers. Longoria also had 4 and Pena 3. The front-runner for AL Rookie of the Year, Longoria homered in his first two postseason at-bats. He has already set a rookie record with 6 homers during the postseason. He and Upton (7) are the first teammates in AL history with at least 6 homers apiece in a postseason. After ranking ninth in the AL with 774 runs this season, Tampa Bay hit 22 homers in 11 playoff games. ... The Rays are trying to become the first team to win a championship after finishing with the worst record in the majors the previous season. ... Crawford rushed back from a finger injury to be ready in October, and his speed puts pressure on opposing defenses. He had 25 of Tampa Bay's major league-best 142 stolen bases this season, then added 6 more in the playoffs. ... The Rays joined the 1991 Braves as the only teams to make the playoffs a year after finishing with the worst record in the majors. They are the second AL team, 11th overall, to earn a postseason berth a year after finishing in last place. The 1991 Twins were the other AL team. ... While emerging stars such as Longoria, Crawford, Kazmir and Upton are playoff newcomers, the Rays had six players on their ALCS roster with postseason experience prior to this year: Floyd, Bartlett, Balfour, Miller, Wheeler and Bradford. A seventh, Iwamura, participated in the Japanese League playoffs. Floyd is in the postseason for the third straight year. He was with the Mets in 2006 and Cubs in 2007. ... Tampa Bay closer Troy Percival (28/32 saves) was left off the roster for both playoff series because of a balky back. ... The Rays won the AL East despite playing a significant number of games with Longoria, Crawford and Percival on the disabled list late in the season. Longoria missed five weeks after breaking his right wrist Aug. 7.
Fast Starts. Each team has a pesky leadoff batter who gets the offense going. Iwamura was a consistent catalyst for Tampa Bay throughout the playoffs. Rollins didn't come close to matching his MVP numbers from a year ago, and he managed only a .300 on-base percentage in nine playoff games. But he stole three bases, scored six times and hit a leadoff homer in the clinching game of both rounds.
The Flyin' Hawaiian. The underrated Victorino gets overlooked in a lineup filled with big names. He's a spark plug who can turn a game around with his bat, glove or speed. The switch-hitting center fielder is excellent defensively and has one of the strongest arms in the majors. He batted .281 with two homers during the playoffs and has already set a club record with 11 RBIs in the postseason.
Tricks At The Trop. Tropicana Field, with its catwalks and artificial turf, is hosting postseason games for the first time this year. Tampa Bay has prospered in the wacky dome, compiling the best home record (57-24) in the majors during the regular season and then winning four of six home playoff games. A tricky bounce or two could turn the series.
Lights Out Lidge. That mammoth homer Lidge allowed to Albert Pujols in the 2005 NLCS is a distant memory. Lidge was perfect during his first season in Philadelphia and then went 5-for-5 in playoff save chances. He had a 1.10 ERA in save situations and a 0.61 ERA in his last 15 regular-season appearances. Howard may be the fans' choice for MVP, but Lidge was chosen the Phillies' most valuable player by the local chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
Big Stick. Pena was the AL Comeback Player of the Year in 2007 with 46 homers and 121 RBIs. He got off to a slow start this season but raised his play after the All-Star break. In the playoffs, he batted .333 with 3 homers and 8 RBIs. Clutch and patient at the plate, Pena drew nine walks with the bases loaded this season, most in the majors since 1957. After scratching his cornea at home, slightly blurred vision in his left eye kept Pena out of the lineup early in the first round -- but he's been swinging well since.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This
material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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