Rays-Yanks is the new Butler vs. Duke

BY foxsports • September 15, 2010

At some point between the star turns by Reid Brignac and Greg Golson and Dan Johnson, the American League East graduated from pennant race to morality play.

The best part: This week was only Act I.

To borrow from our friends at the U.S. Open, the Rays edged the Yankees 1-0, 7-8, 4-3 in an extraordinary match at Tropicana Field. The divisional lead changed three times in as many days. Tampa Bay holds the belt — for now — after a frenzied 4-3 victory on Wednesday, though we may wait until Game 162 before learning which team prevails.

The biggest prize may not come until late October, after an AL Championship Series that would struggle to top this week’s trap-door, triple-flip drama.

But I can report that the casting call is complete.

These are the Rays: young, bold, and contrarian. They are financial underdogs. An advertisement for Rose Radiology (locations in Zephyrhills and Wesley Chapel!) is a noteworthy center-field feature at their home ballpark.

These are the Yankees: veteran, conservative and by-the-book. They are financial heavyweights. Monument Park, a tribute to their century of greatness, is a noteworthy center-field feature at their (bazillion-dollar) home ballpark.

The Rays are like a senior-laden NCAA basketball team that just wants to reach the next round because the bus trips are too much fun. All-Stars Carl Crawford and Rafael Soriano probably will sign with wealthier teams after the season.

The Yankees, meanwhile, are the defending World Series champions. If they don’t win this year, they may respond by throwing millions of dollars at a free agent … like Crawford.

That isn’t to suggest that the Rays are good and the Yankees are evil. Both organizations have great employees, on and off the field. Both are entertaining to watch. Either would be a deserving champion this year.

But the average American sports fan hasn’t had a choice like this since Butler versus Duke.

Consider the most-talked-about player in each clubhouse after Wednesday’s game — journeyman Johnson for the Rays, Hall of Fame-bound Derek Jeter for the Yankees.

At this time last year, Johnson was playing for the Yokohama Bay Stars of the Japanese Central League. He was there because it was “a great opportunity for me to make some money for my family.” He figured he’d play there for five years. He loved the cultural experience.

But truth be told, he had a lousy time on the field.

“Baseball-wise, I was miserable,” he said. “I wasn’t playing the same game everybody else was. I was watching everybody else go up there and get the fair strike zone. Everybody on the other team knew it, too. They would just throw it in the dirt, throw it over my head, throw it at me.

“They say you’ve got to earn your ride there. Maybe if I go back again, it would be better.”

At the moment, the only place he’s headed is the Rays’ postseason roster.

He came to bat in the fifth inning with a man on and the Yankees ahead by a run. He socked a lead-changing home run to right field.

He came to bat in the seventh inning with a man on and the Yankees ahead by a run. He socked a lead-changing home run to right field — this one even farther than the first.

Yes, a .221 hitter from Coon Rapids, Minn., drove home all the runs Tampa Bay needed to take a series from the mighty Yankees.

IUnderstand, though, that this was not an anomaly for Johnson. Don’t be deceived by a playing record that includes 36 major-league games since 2007. He has a knack for this hero stuff.

Around here they still talk about the first game of his first stint as a Ray — Sept. 9, 2008. He didn’t arrive at Fenway Park until game time because of flight delays. Then he came on as a pinch hitter and swatted a game-tying home run off Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon. (The Rays, bound for the World Series, went on to win.)

He added a walk-off home run to his legend against the Red Sox last month. Now this.

How does he do it?

“I get that calming sensation,” he explained, and we have no choice but to believe him. Such is the dogma of the Rays’ no-worries universe. If they reflected too much on their disadvantages — the Yankees outspend them more than 2 to 1 — they wouldn’t be this good.

Joe Maddon, the manager with the Hugo Boss spectacles, deserves much of the credit for that. He engaged in a philosophical give-and-take with reporters before Wednesday’s game, explaining why he refused to chastise Crawford for breaking one of baseball’s hallowed rules the night before.

Crawford ran afoul of the game’s conventional wisdom when he made the 27th out at third base. But Maddon loved his aggressiveness.

“I had no problem whatsoever with what Carl did yesterday,” he said. “I actually liked it.”

Maddon wasn’t so reflective and mild-mannered during Wednesday’s seventh inning, after Jeter duped the umpires into awarding him first base.

Jeter squared to bunt on an inside pitch from Rays reliever Chad Qualls. As the ball arrived at home plate, some gyrations by the Yankees captain gave Lance Barksdale the impression that he had been hit by the pitch. Replays indicated otherwise. (Jeter later admitted to the acting job.) Maddon protested at length and was tossed.

Jeter, fast approaching 3,000 hits, shouldn’t need to consult the A.J. Pierzynski Gamesmanship Manual in order to start a rally. But he’s hitting .262. You do what you can.

Predictably, the Yankees went ahead when the very next batter, Curtis Granderson, crushed a two-run homer to right. But maybe Maddon knew all along that the game was in hand, thanks to a certain designated hitter who entered the game hitting .200 this season.

Johnson was adhering to his in-between-at-bats routine — the USA Today crossword at his locker. He filled in the boxes without any help on Wednesday and was ready when Phil Hughes let a cutter catch too much of the plate. His trip around the bases complete, Johnson returned to the clubhouse and found the ejected Maddon relaxing on a couch.

“Well done,” Johnson remembers him saying.

The heroics enabled the Rays to hand the ball to Rafael Soriano — something the Yankees probably wouldn’t have done with one of their own.

Soriano, you see, had thrown three days in a row. When that happens to a New York reliever, a red star is placed next to his name on Joe Girardi’s handy card. Stay away, it suggests.

Not so with the Rays. Soriano recorded save No. 43. And on a night when the hero (Johnson) was a guy earning close to the league minimum, the highest-paid player in the sport (Alex Rodriguez) made the final out.

The script is stranger than fiction, in a way that can’t possibly last through October.

Or could it?

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