The vultures were circling overhead, waiting to pick the carcass of the visiting Rays, who began the final month of the season by losing five of six games before heading to Boston. Continuing their bad spell, the Rays lost, 3-0, to the Red Sox in the series opener, allowing the Beantown Bullies to creep within a half a game of first place and fueling talk that Tampa Bay couldn't take the heat.
There was almost no doubt that the defending World Series champions would finish the job in the final two games of the series, en route to steamrolling their way back to another AL East championship.
Just one problem: a resilient little baseball team that could.
The Rays took the Red Sox's best shot and fired back.
Dan Johnson joined the Rays from Triple-A Durham prior to the second game of the Boston series. After Johnson arrived late to Boston, Rays manager Joe Maddon called on him to pinch-hit to start the ninth inning with the Rays trailing by a run. Johnson responded by re-routing a Jonathan Papelbon fastball into the right-field stands to tie the game, which the Rays ended up winning, 5-4, to claim their first win of the season at Fenway Park.
"We've just had guys do that all year," Dan Wheeler said. "We've been able to never give up. [It] just shows how hard this team has played for nine innings. I've never been on a team where so many guys have contributed."
In the third game, the Rays took a 14-inning, 4-2 win over the Red Sox to take their first series at Fenway Park since 1999. Rather than losing ground to the Red Sox in Boston, the Rays left with a bigger lead than they had when they arrived and the ship had been righted.
Alas, what happened in Boston almost seemed predictable. There were indications as far back as Spring Training that the culture of the Rays had changed. In March, Tampa Bay seemed to have a purpose, as well as a "we're not going to take it any more" attitude, that was personified in an unusual scuffle with New York that stemmed from Rays reserve Elliot Johnson running over a Yankees catcher late in an exhibition game in Tampa.
That experience seemed to gel the team and the seeds for a special season were planted. Helping to cultivate those seeds were veterans Cliff Floyd, Troy Percival and Eric Hinske.
Adversity presented itself from the start of the season when the Rays began without staff ace Scott Kazmir, who sat out the first month while nursing a sore left elbow. Other injuries began to pile up. Willy Aybar, Matt Garza and Floyd all went on the disabled list. But when one player went down, another player stepped in and got the job done.
Among those stepping in was Evan Longoria, who arrived on April 12, when Tampa Bay was 5-5. And the rookie third baseman began to flash his leather in the field like a Gold Glover and also swing the bat in the clutch -- and with power. By the end of April, the Rays' record stood at 15-12, leaving them one game out of first place.
Top of the heap
|A month-by-month look at the American League East.|
The high point for the first month came via James Shields, who pitched a two-hit shutout against the Red Sox to complete a three-game sweep at Tropicana Field.
Despite Tampa Bay's auspicious beginning, few believed it was for real. Fodder for this belief came the first time the Rays went to Fenway Park at the start of May and got swept in three games. How they responded to that setback established a tone for the season.
The Rays left Boston and took two out of three from the Blue Jays in Toronto. In the third game of the Toronto series, Tampa Bay blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning, then came back to take an 8-3 win in 13 innings. After the win, Maddon could not help but marvel at his team's accomplishments in the game.
"That's the kind of game where if you lose it, going into tomorrow, it's really rather devastating," Maddon said. "But then again, when you win it with this kind of script, then it can be something that can catapult you in a positive way."
And catapult them it did.
The Rays returned home to sweep the Angels in three games. Shields threw a one-hitter in the opening game of that series that saw Longoria win it with a walk-off home run in the ninth.
A pattern of walk-off wins was established and any number of heroes -- from Gabe Gross, Carl Crawford, Hinske, B.J. Upton, or Carlos Pena -- stepped forward to provide the clutch hitting to fuel the late-inning heroics.
A trip to Boston in early June once again tested the Rays' mettle when they were again swept in three games to start a 3-6 road trip. Such a trip had all the trappings of bursting Tampa Bay's balloon, according to most baseball experts. Instead, it signaled another new beginning during Interleague Play in which the Rays went 11-4, including a three-game sweep of the Cubs at Tropicana Field.
"Somewhere along the way, we learned how to win," Shields said. "I think those sweeps we had early in the season, those were first-place teams -- like the Cubs -- ones that were supposed to go to the World Series and we hung with them and actually swept them. Those wins gave us a lot of confidence."
August arrived, bringing another healthy dose of adversity with it. In less than a week, the Rays lost Crawford, Longoria and Percival to injury. If ever there were a time to fold the tents, this should have been it. Instead the team once again rose to the occasion.
Aybar filled in admirably at third base, while Maddon successfully juggled players in left and right fields and in the bullpen.
Just like that, the Rays compiled a 21-7 mark in August to carry a 5 1/2-game lead in the AL East into September, a memorable final month in which the Rays proved that they indeed belonged.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.