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Everyone gets in on the act for Tampa Bay


Everyone gets in on the act for Tampa Bay
Just in case you forgot who carried the banner of the American League into the 2008 World Series . . .

It wasn't the Red Sox . It wasn't the Yankees. And it wasn't the Angels.

Nope, it was none of the above. It was the team that just opened the 2009 season by taking two of three from the Red Sox , beating them without star center fielder B.J. Upton (wrist) and doing so right here in the little cash register we know as Fenway Park.

Sox fans had their fun Tuesday afternoon. But that was only 1/162 of the season. Opening Day Hoopla and the Boston Pops still only get you one W.

The way Tampa Bay Rays skipper Joe Maddon sees it, his team had a pretty good shot of sweeping, not that he's upset about yesterday's 4-3 conquest of the Red Sox only giving his club two of three.

``We played well all three games here, I thought '' Maddon declared. ``That first day, [Josh] Beckett pitched that well. But they were well-fought games, all three of 'em.''

And talk about confident skippers, try this: Maddon emptied the bench in the opening series.

He played mix `n' match, sitting down the likes of Carl Crawford, Dioner Navarro, and newly acquired DH Pat Burrell, then had the pleasure of watching outfielders Matt Joyce and backup catcher Shawn Riggans hit home runs off Daisuke Matsuzaka.

He also made liberal use of his bullpen, employing Brian Shouse and Joe Nelson, each an offseason addition, to nail down the rubber game.

``I think everybody kind of had a piece of the action,'' he pointed out.

Much like Terry Francona, Maddon is a Big Picture person. He came here with the goals of a) winning games and b) having as many people as possible get involved, so this was a thoroughly successful trip to Boston.

``All of our bullpen guys, I'm comfortable with them pitching even or ahead in the game,'' Maddon said. ``You've got to get guys up there to feel like that. Getting those two guys into a meaningful game here at Fenway like that early is a good game, I believe. I wanted them to feel they are members of the 2009 Rays, yes, but I also feel confident with those guys in there, I really do.''

He was speaking specifically of his pitchers, but he was also thinking of such bench people as Riggans and Gabe Kapler, who saw a lot of action in his first series with the defending AL champions.

``You can't sit them on a bench for two weeks and expect them to do well,'' Maddon explained. ``That makes no sense.''

Most people charged with making Baseball predictions were ready to acknowledge that the Rays were a good ball club in 2008 and were quite legitimate AL champions. But very few picked them to repeat. The Yankees are the consensus choice, followed by the Red Sox . The general feeling seemed to be that there would be some kind of market correction for the Rays.

But the only significant personnel change was one the Rays didn't hesitate making. They were more than willing to sacrifice 14-game winner Edwin Jackson, sending him to Detroit for the aforementioned Joyce. Most people automatically assumed postseason revelation David Price would inherit Jackson's spot in the rotation, but the gifted southpaw will start the season in Durham, not because he stunk up the joint during spring training, but because the Rays have vowed to be cautious with him and simply because they are still so good they don't really need him - yet.

The Rays pounded Dice-K for three home runs and four doubles while building a 4-0 lead for Matt Garza, the sturdy righthander who held the Red Sox to three hits in seven innings of splendid work in Game 7 of the 2008 AL Championship Series. Garza was a formidable foe again, giving up just one run on four hits in seven strong innings.

``Later in the season, I probably would have let him go deeper,'' Maddon said. ``I liked the way he was throwing in the seventh even more than I did in the fifth or sixth.''

But yanking Garza and introducing Messrs. Shouse and Nelson into the action fit into the overall plan.

Truth be told, Maddon's bullpen almost blew the game. Nelson relieved Shouse with two away and a man on first in the eighth, and two batters later, it was 4-2 after Nelson walked Jason Bay and gave up a gap RBI double to Mike Lowell. But in the game's biggest situation, the veteran righthander fanned Jed Lowrie on a 3-2 pitch to end the inning.

Troy Percival made life interesting in the ninth, surrendering a leadoff homer to Jason Varitek and issuing a two-out walk to David Ortiz. Kevin Youkilis, who to that point was 3 for 3 with two runs and a walk, gave it a good ride, sending Kapler a step and a half onto the dirt and a couple of steps away from the Red Sox bullpen. In other words, it was a 400-foot out to end the game.

``It doesn't always have to be an oil painting to be successful,'' smiled Maddon, as only the winner could.

It was a heart-to-the-throat ending to a very competitive opening series, and when you look at the hard time the Orioles gave the Yankees and the fact that Toronto has started out well, it was a reminder that each team in the AL East can look forward to many harrowing afternoons and evenings.

``As we were coming off the field,'' Maddon confided, ``one of the umpires said to me, `Is the All-Star break tomorrow? It was such an intense series.' ''

``They're a good team,'' said Terry Francona. ``I like to think we are. It's going to be a long, interesting season.''

The next installment is April 30, down in the Trop. You might clear that date on your viewing calendar.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and the host of Globe 10.0 on boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: April 10, 2009

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