PHILADELPHIA -- The Rays' season has featured some of the unlikeliest twists and turns seen in a Major League campaign, so it should come as no surprise that another one has presented itself as they stand one game from elimination.
The upstart Tampa Bay ballclub that slayed the beast of the American League East and moved on to the World Series can now look to the Red Sox for inspiration. Boston forced a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series after being left for dead, and the Rays will head into Game 5 of the Fall Classic believing that they may one-up that comeback story.
"We've got to really push to have a happy flight home tomorrow," third baseman Evan Longoria said after the Rays fell to the Phillies, 10-2, in Game 4 on Sunday. "I heard Jason Varitek say that when they were talking about Game 5. We don't want to fly home knowing that we're going home for the winter. We'd like to play two more games at [Tropicana Field]."
It won't be easy -- not with the Phillies ready to put the ball in the very capable left hand of their ace, Cole Hamels, who has won four starts in the 2008 postseason. But the last place many thought they'd be heading in Game 5 of the ALCS was back to St. Petersburg, as the Rays held a seven-run lead and stood seven outs away from clinching the pennant.
A Red Sox comeback for the ages crushed those hopes, and Boston stepped back into the driver's seat with a Game 6 win at The Trop before Matt Garza outdueled Jon Lester in the deciding game. Those lessons aren't ancient history -- Game 7 happened just eight days ago -- so they're still fresh in Tampa Bay's collective minds.
Off the Floor
The Rays will try to become the sixth team in seven-game World Series history to come back from a 3-1 deficit. The first five:
"We were swinging the bats incredibly well in Boston," Carlos Pena said. "We came out and scored so many runs against the Red Sox in Boston -- the most unlikely things were happening. And then [Game 5], we were winning, 7-0, and they came back and won, and then went into our house and beat us.
"All of a sudden, the Red Sox were right there where they wanted to be, one win away from coming to the World Series. They couldn't do it, but right now, our attitude is: Why can't we be that team that actually does what the Red Sox couldn't do?"
It'd be an uncommon achievement on the World Series stage. With the Phillies a victory away from the title, Philadelphia logged the 43rd time in 104 World Series that a team has taken a 3-1 advantage. Of the 42 previous, a team has gone on to win the World Series 36 times, with 23 of those closing the series out in five games.
One win away
Teams with 3-1 leads in the World Series since 1969 have gone on to win the Series 13 of 15 times, including the last six. The breakdown:
Mets in 5
Orioles in 5
Athletics in 7
Athletics in 5
Yankees in 6
Pirates in 7
Orioles in 5
Tigers in 5
Royals in 7
Dodgers in 5
Blue Jays in 6
Blue Jays in 6
Braves in 6
Yankees in 5
Cardinals in 5
But a comeback is possible. It's been done before -- five times in a World Series, in fact. The most recent example was the 1985 Royals, who came back from 3-1 to stun the Cardinals. The 1979 Pirates, 1968 Tigers, 1958 Yankees and 1925 Pirates also accomplished the feat.
"It's definitely not over until it's over," said the Phillies' Game 4 winning pitcher Joe Blanton. "When you're facing a team like this, anything can happen if you let down your guard. I think the rest of the guys know that."
History lessons will only take the Rays so far. They will need to hope that their Game 1 starter, Scott Kazmir, can come back and outpitch Hamels in a rematch of 24-year-old southpaws. There's no sense in worrying about Games 6 and 7 when no one is promised anything further.
"The mantra has been one at a time," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I want to approach it that way. That's how we've approached the whole season. It's about beating the guy tomorrow and getting back home. It's about tomorrow. I don't want us looking any further ahead than that -- it's about tomorrow's game.
"Their pitcher is really good; so is ours. We have to not give them four outs in an inning. We have to have better at-bats. We have to see more pitches. Those are the keys to our success that have gotten away from us a bit. To the Phillies' credit, they've played really well and they are very good, but we have to play our game in order to win tomorrow and the next couple of days after that."
It would help the Rays' mood if the offensive contributions they'd enjoyed with Longoria and Pena -- now a combined 0-for-29 with 15 strikeouts in the World Series -- would show up. For his part, Longoria said the only way to get out of a slump is to keep swinging.
"We're going to come out of it or we're not going to come out of it," Longoria said. "Whether or not we do or we don't, we have to keep swinging the bat. If we do and this thing turns around for us, it'll be a great feeling. We'll know that we accomplished something. But at the same time, if it doesn't turn, we've got to go down knowing we did everything we could."
There is a prevalent feeling that the Rays, playing under the brightest lights the national stage has to offer, may have created unwelcome anxiety.
"We definitely don't want to lose a series like this," Carl Crawford said. "We want to make it a better series than what it was. We're going to all come ready to play tomorrow. We haven't been playing our game -- the timely hits haven't been there, the defense has been shaky, the pitching has been shaky. Everybody knows that's not the way we play."
But the Rays believe their Boston experiences may serve them well. The Red Sox were favored widely in that Game 7 back in St. Petersburg and, as it turned out, that was the best tonic possible for the Rays, who seem to thrive as the underdog.
The odds were in their favor coming into the World Series as well, but with that long gone, there's a tiny bit of the swagger left that says maybe -- just maybe -- the Rays are the rare breed that has the Phillies right where they want them.
"We've been in a Game 7 before, and we know what to expect," Longoria said. "I think our guys will be pretty good for us tomorrow. We've played for our lives before; we've played the win-or-go-home games. I think we'll be loose and come out here as a group of 25 and try to get it done."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.