PHILADELPHIA -- They'll never forget the ride.
We'll never forget it, either.
And even if the Rays go on to win many World Series, this team that didn't win it all will live on.
"It's a disappointing ending, to an incredible story," general manager Andrew Friedman said, standing in the middle of a losing clubhouse filled more with hope and pride than despair and gloom.
If the Rays' youth showed in their five-game World Series loss to the Phillies, it also showed in their reaction to defeat. While 35-year-old Cliff Floyd was issuing a warning that you can't ever count on getting back to this point -- witness the 2006 Tigers and the 2007 Rockies -- his fresh-faced teammates were promising that for them, this is just the start.
"We expect to be back here next year," David Price said. "And the year after that. And the year after that.
"I'm expecting to be here for the rest of my life."
Price is 23, and he appeared in as many games in this postseason (five) as he has in his entire regular-season major league career. Cleanup hitter Evan Longoria is 22, center fielder B.J. Upton is 24, and top starter James Shields is 26.
This was always a team with tons of young talent. Now it's a team with tons of young talent and the experience that comes from making it to the World Series. This is a team that believed when no one else did, and it's now a team that believes that everyone else does, too.
"We made a bunch of believers," Shields said. "I think the whole world believes in us, and I think we shocked the world. We're going to be here for a long time. We're not done."
Perhaps he's right. There's a real chance he's right.
But even if he is, the Rays will never have another year like this one. They'll never again be the ultimate underdog, the team that had never avoided 90 losses but suddenly was knocking out a defending world champion.
|Evan Longoria and the young Rays have a bright postseason future. (Getty Images)|
That doesn't mean next year can't be fun. It just means that next year can't be the same.
"It's only the beginning of the ride," principal owner Stuart Sternberg promised. "The train left the station. The journey is going to be tremendous for years to come."
As for this part of the ride, Sternberg's favorite memory was the end of Game 7 against the Red Sox.
"Aki (Iwamura) getting that ball at second base," he said. "(The joy) was as unbridled as it could be. As much as we wanted to win this (World Series), I don't believe it could have topped that."
Perhaps that was part of the Rays' problem against the Phillies. Maybe that's why they batted .212 as a team, why middle-of-the-order hitters Carlos Pena and Longoria combined to bat .081 (3-for-37), why the usually-solid Rays committed five errors and ran into many outs on the bases.
The Rays were careful to praise the Phillies, but they also believe those who saw only the World Series didn't see them at their best.
"We didn't play well," said Rocco Baldelli, whose game-tying, seventh-inning home run was the Rays' Wednesday night highlight. "We didn't play like we played all season."
They didn't play like they played down the September stretch against the Red Sox, nor the way they did in that classic ALCS showdown with the Sox. Again, maybe all they put into that Boston series made the World Series tougher to win.
"The fanfare and the atmosphere in that Boston series was almost bigger than it was coming into the World Series," Baldelli said. "We knew we were playing in the World Series, and those become the most important games of your career. But everything around the Boston series was built up bigger than this.
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"It was kind of a crazy series, and after going through that, there was kind of a lull."
That said, the Rays certainly could have won three of the four games they lost to the Phillies. They fell by one run in Game 1, and by one run again in Game 3. They lost the clincher 4-3, and some Rays fans will be left wondering if it would have been different if Maddon had made different decisions with his pitching.
He chose to stick with right-hander Grant Balfour when the game resumed Wednesday, and Balfour immediately allowed a leadoff double to the left-handed hitting Geoff Jenkins. Jenkins went on to score a go-ahead run.
Maddon followed Balfour with lefty J.P. Howell, and he left Howell in the game to begin the seventh inning, even with right-handed hitting Pat Burrell leading off. Burrell doubled, and when Pedro Feliz singled off Chad Bradford, the Phillies had the lead again -- and eventually the championship, too.
It's easy to second-guess, and to say that Maddon should have gone right to Price, who eventually pitched a scoreless eighth. But Maddon said he wasn't second-guessing himself, and it seemed that none of his players were second-guessing him, either.
"He just went by his gut," Price said. "It's worked all year. We just got done playing in the World Series. Nobody's going to question it."
Oh, somebody certainly will question it, but in this case, Maddon has earned some benefit of the doubt. His unconventional moves got the Rays this far, just as much as his "9=8" optimism did.
"As much as these players won 100-plus games this year, he did, too," Floyd said.
Floyd, taken off the roster in mid-series because of a tear in his shoulder, was the one Ray who had to wipe away a tear. Floyd has won a World Series (with the 1997 Marlins), but this team that lost a World Series, coming at or near the end of his career, left just as big an impression on him.
"You don't find a better bunch of dudes," Floyd said. "We did things people never dreamed of."
The ride was special, even for those of us who just watched a small part of it. The story was great, and Friedman's assessment was right on.
A disappointing ending to an incredible story?
Yes, for the Rays, that's just about right.