Picked by many to fall short at the hands of the veteran, more experienced Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, the Tampa Bay Rays have used solid pitching and timely hitting to jump out to a surprising three games to one series lead. The developments have stunned fans and media members alike, and journalists across the country have begun to search high and low for an explanation for young Tampa Bay's sudden, unexpected success against a grizzled giant of a foe.
It is a complicated question. But the answer, as it turns out, may be as simple as one hypothesis put forward by Chip Caray during the Tuesday night broadcast. The Tampa Bay Rays aren't fazed because they don't understand the magnitude of their current situation. For the Tampa Bay Rays don't even know they're in the playoffs.
Tour the Tampa Bay clubhouse and you don't get the impression that you're seeing a team one win away from its first ever World Series. In one corner, a few pitchers are playing cards in a circle. In another corner, three players are chatting over lunch. In the middle on the floor lies BJ Upton, fast asleep. The entire team is seemingly oblivious to the situation in which it finds itself.
"Playoffs?" responds long-time Ray Carl Crawford to a question from another reporter. "Shoot, what are you talking about, playoffs? It's been ten years and this team hasn't seen the playoffs. We're just trying to play our best and we'll see what happens."
Look around the room and you'd think it's just any other day. While it may be October outside, there's not a single indication to be found that it's October within. A list of summer birthdays hangs from the bulletin board. The calendar by the window is flipped to September. A group of hitters wears t-shirts and shorts as they prepare for batting practice on the field. Manager Joe Maddon looks on, content.
"The calendar's been like that for 45 days now," says Maddon. "The other coaches and I decided that this was the best way. It's a young team. When the stakes are high, you have to do what you can to keep the guys in their comfort zones. And we figure they're most comfortable not knowing what's going on. You can't get nervous if you don't know there's any pressure."
"It's gone perfectly," adds bench coach Dave Martinez. "There was a scare once. See, we write the results of all the games on the calendar. W 5-3, W 11-6, L 5-7, all that. And one time last week Dioner (Navarro) came up to me and asked why the calendar was filled up with numbers when we told them it was still the middle of the month. But I told him those were coordinates for a potential championship parade, and he seemed to take it pretty well."
Navarro took it so well, in fact, that he repeated what Martinez had said to some of his teammates.
"That calendar thing with the parade? That's inspirational," says Matt Garza. "It really motivates you, to think that this team might be able to bring a championship parade to the city, and that the coaches are already planning for it. It lights a fire. This month seems like it's been going on forever, but September always feels like the longest month of the season, and it's nice to have that on the wall as a reminder of what we can accomplish if we just keep grinding it out."
The Tampa Bay Rays as an organization were turned around by a new front office that came to power in 2005. General manager Andrew Friedman - the leader of the group that rescued the franchise - supports the measures the coaching staff has taken to keep the team playing within itself.
"Other teams, you'll hear them talk all the time about how they need to find more clutch players. Guys who elevate their games and turn it on when it matters most. They'll spend countless millions of dollars going after guys because they think they'll come up big in October.
"The whole Moneyball thing is about reading the market and seizing what's undervalued while ignoring what's overvalued. Right now, there's still a lot of emphasis being put on clutch performance. While years and years of research have failed to uncover any sort of sustainable clutch skill, if a guy does well in the playoffs, he's going to get rewarded, even though it doesn't mean very much. That's just the way it works.
"We don't need to get involved in that. We don't need to risk getting burned by a clutch false positive, because we've found another way. A better way. Clutch is only relevant if a given player is aware of high-leverage situations, right? So what if you have a bunch of players who don't know what's going on? Fernando Perez isn't here yet because he left his car keys in his freezer and now they're stuck in a popsicle. The other day Kaz (Scott Kazmir) tried to make himself into an automatic flamethrower by lighting sunflower seeds on fire and putting them in his mouth.
"Why try to add clutch when you can easily add stupid?"
Kazmir sits on a chair in front of his locker. He alternates between stretching his legs and lacing up his cleats. Tomorrow night he will take the mound for Game 5 of a series that as far as he knows doesn't exist.
"Coach says we're 103-67 so far, so that's pretty good," says Kazmir. "I don't know where that puts us in the standings, but there's still a long way to go in the season, so anything can happen. We just need to keep marching and playing loose. I have a good feeling about these guys. We'll see where we end up."
The Red Sox may be fully aware of the long odds they're facing if they want to advance to a second consecutive World Series, but the Tampa Bay clubhouse is none the wiser. And Joe Maddon & Co. wouldn't have it any other way. While five more wins stand between the Rays and the championship parade that has the players so excited, for now, one truth stands above all others: for this Cinderella baseball team, ignorance really is bliss.