ST. PETERSBURG -- American League dominance, reinforced at this time of the year in the diamond arena of the World Series, appears to be in good hands with the Tampa Bay Rays. They may be new at this postseason thing, but, as the Boston Red Sox found out, they're also very good at it.
Very good, and very elastic. They snapped back into the Red Sox's faces when least expected it.
And they're still very hungry.
"We're four away from being the best in baseball!" AL Championship Series MVP Matt Garza hollered in the middle of the Tropicana Field infield late Sunday night, minutes after Jed Lowrie's grounder to second nearly blew the roof off Tropicana Field. "We're going to the World Series, and there's nothing better than that."
Time for a new wrinkle on manager Joe Maddon's new math: 9=2, the other being the Philadelphia Phillies, who are on their way down to Florida to begin the 2008 World Series on Wednesday night.
"Now we'll go for nine equals one," said the Rays' manager.
Don't count against it, either.
Besides all their other assets, the Rays also have the 2008 version of Francisco Rodriguez. In the '02 postseason, the Angels -- and their bench coach, Maddon -- won their only World Series -- largely on the unknown arm of K-Rod, the reliever who hadn't reached the AL until Sept. 18 of that year and became an October secret weapon.
The update on that is David Price, who earned his first big league win in Game 2 of the ALCS, just one month after his big league debut, and pocketed his first big league save in Game 7 on Sunday.
Just the latest bullet in the chamber.
WE MEET AGAIN
The Rays and Phillies have played five Interleague series, with the Rays holding a 10-5 advantage in wins, including a three-game sweep in 2001.
With 16 home runs, the Rays smashed the ALCS record of 12, set in 2003 by the Red Sox against the Yankees. And now the going-long Rays will be visiting Philadelphia's Citizens "Bandbox" Park. Better load up on extra baseballs.
The team that will try to run its league's superiority to eight World Series conquests in 11 years is a young, talented and combustible crew playing at its absolute peak.
The Rays scaled the last remaining height by answering one of the uncertainties about them at the outset of the postseason: How would they react to adversity?
Baseball had a long wait -- the way they began rampaging through October -- but it finally had its answer: Quite well, thank you.
It doesn't get any more adverse than being seven outs from the World Series with a seven-run lead when the Red Sox begin pulling out their customary voodoo.
No one before had recovered. Well, cancel the coroner.
Someone needs to break the news to Phillies reliever Chad Durbin, who had candidly said while the National League champions were waiting for their World Series opponent to be identified, "Selfishly, it's easier for us if Tampa wins."
Forgive Durbin, an AL journeyman the previous nine seasons, when the Rays consistently lost 6 1/2 out of every 10 games in years past.
With all the conspicuous power (a total of 22 homers in 11 postseason games), the overshadowed speed (17-for-19 in steal attempts), a suction if occasionally erratic defense and a battalion of crack matchup relievers -- Boston manager Terry Francona called Tampa Bay's bullpen "double-barreled" -- behind a solid starting quartet, the Rays travel in armor.
In taking the White Sox out of the AL Division Series and dethroning the defending World Series champion Red Sox, the Rays outscored them, 64-41, and outslugged them, 22-14.
One trademark of the Rays' October push has been the early lightning and solid starting pitching that has consistently forced their opponents to play catch-up. They've either scored first or led after three innings of every postseason game except for their 2-0 loss to Boston in Game 1 and in Sunday night's clincher.
While starters Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Andy Sonnanstine and Garza combined to allow a total of 13 runs within the first three innings of the seven ALCS and five ALDS games, the Rays were putting up 28 of their own.
If the Phillies think they drew the right straw by dodging the two-time World Series champion Red Sox, they had better readjust their mind-set.
It might also be a good idea for the Phils to now cram up on the Rays. Special tutoring on B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria is recommended.
They've teamed for 13 home runs, the second-best postseason tandem performance to the 14 the Giants' Barry Bonds and Rich Aurilia hit in 17 games in 2002. So Upton and Longoria can still work on that. Their eight homers in the ALCS are a record by teammates for any single playoff series.
The Rays drew plenty of kudos for winning 97 games, and along with them, the tough AL East. Come October, they kicked it into a higher gear, playing at a level way beyond anything they reached during the regular season.
Who knew they were holding back?
After watching the Rays' resolute conquest of Red Sox Nation, all you can do is revere them. And, sorry Boston, we don't mean Paul.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.