Can Maddon magic do it again?

If Rays manager gets club in playoffs again he will be true miracle worker

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

7:47 PM CDT, September 29, 2012


Few baseball men are wiser than Joe Maddon. He proved it with this conclusion about the postseason viability of the White Sox after arriving in Chicago on Thursday.

"You just never know, man,'' the Rays manager said.

No, you don't. But you do know this: The Rays made a terrific decision when they hired Maddon to replace Lou Piniella after the 2005 season, and owner Stuart Sternberg and general manager Andrew Friedman were even smarter when they built such a strong relationship with him that Maddon wouldn't bolt for greener pastures and bigger payrolls.

Maddon's teams play the game as well, and especially as hard, as any in the game. A lot of teams talk about having fun but his really do have fun.

Late last Wednesday night in Boston, their wild-card chances hanging by a thread, the Rays cavorted in front of the Green Monster at Fenway Park. As Maddon watched admiringly, the rookie hazing showcase orchestrated by James Shields, the Rays' leader, played out, with the ghosts of Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky hiding their eyes.

Ten Rays rookies put on a drag show for their teammates. Dressed in dance garb, pantyhose and wigs, they vamped to Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe,'' and they weren't making it up as they went. The routine had been choreographed, and even included a cameo from second-year outfielder Desmond Jennings, who did a back flip.

Of course, the Rays' victory over the Red Sox had lightened the mood, but Maddon said the show was going on anyway.

"James told me what he was doing the day before,'' Maddon said. "I thought it was great. I was amused. I told him we were doing it win or lose … but it was better after a win.''

With the Rays heading toward a season-ending series against the Orioles, they are trying to duplicate the late-season miracle they pulled off a year ago, when they won their last five games, including three over the Yankees, to overtake the Red Sox in the wild-card race. This year, they seemed dead in the water in mid-September but won eight games in a row before losing Friday night to join the Angels in putting heat on the Orioles and Athletics.

It would be one of the great finishes ever — a lot better than what they did a year ago — if they could pull it off. A lot of credit goes to Cy Young contender David Price and a starting rotation that had put up a 3.06 ERA in September, but it's the 58-year-old Maddon — baseball's modern man — who sets the tone.

Sitting in the visiting dugout at U.S. Cellular Field, he recalled his first team in 2006, which lost 101 games.

"That first year, we were 3-35 in the second half on the road,'' Maddon said. "Come on. How do you do that?''

While every victory over the last week has been a must, Maddon deliberately has avoided any tendency to micro-manage. He has made batting practice optional for his players, and reading scouting reports seemingly optional for the staff.

"I don't want to load guys up with a bunch of information,'' Maddon said. "They become mentally weighted down, and it could be counterproductive. This is the time for simplification … It's more about freeing their minds and spirits now, having healthy bodies, than any mind-boggling information, I believe.''

While the Rays ranked 25th in payroll to start the season, they have a chance — albeit a thin one — to reach the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. Because of the rotation built around Price, Shields, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore, they are the team nobody wants to play in October. Will they refuse to die?

Missing man formation: If the Giants can win the Division Series, Bruce Bochy will become the first manager ever to tell a .346 hitter he's not needed in the playoffs. He and GM Brian Sabean decided not to save a spot for Melky Cabrera, who will have only five games left on his PED suspension when the regular season ends.

While the Giants have been winning without Cabrera, it wouldn't take many low-scoring games for fans to second-guess the decision. The team cited roster issues for not leaving the door open — specifically, that they could have to play short-handed for as many as two games in the NLCS if they swept the Division Series — but the decision would seem to have more to do with the ethical issues.

Speaking on his SiriusXM radio show, Cal Ripken Jr. said he didn't buy the roster issue, because teams rarely need 25 men in a playoff series. But he did wonder if Cabrera could recover his timing at the plate to be effective against big league pitchers.

The guess here is he could have hit OK. He would be able to get a lot of at-bats in the Instructional League and in simulated games. But Cabrera could not shed his damaged reputation, and the Giants decided to put the issue to bed rather than have it hanging over them.

Easy choice: The Indians are giving serious consideration to Terry Francona in their managerial search, and you wonder why. Sandy Alomar Jr., their interim manager, seems like a perfect pick to replace Manny Acta.

Alomar is as highly respected as any coach and made his reputation as a player during 11 seasons with the Indians. The one advantage Francona would have is that he has a little higher profile after winning two World Series as a manager and spending the last season on ESPN. He might be more of a salesman, and the Indians' franchise certainly needs that. But how long could he be satisfied working within the Indians' limitations?

If Alomar doesn't get this job, he should be the choice for the Red Sox with Bobby Valentine on his way out.

Team to beat: Ian Kinsler was excited when the Rangers scored five runs in the first inning on Thursday after the A's had reduced their lead in the AL West to three games. The Rangers went on to a 9-7 victory that turned back the A's.

"That's why we're the best team in the American League,'' Kinsler said. "I hope you all don't forget that. … We're a team that's tough to put away. Other teams know that we're very good. They also know our chemistry is very good. They have to fight through that.''

He's right. The Rangers look like the only team that will be favored to win every series it plays in October. They probably also are the only team that will be bitterly disappointed if it gets to the World Series and can't win, as the losses to the Giants and Cardinals have taken a toll.

The last word: "He kind of reminds me of Manny Ramirez back when he was with Boston — a guy who isn't going to miss a mistake and doesn't have too many holes. I would put those two as probably the top right-handed hitters I've seen." — Joe Mauer on Miguel Cabrera, who can win the Triple Crown with a big finish.


Twitter @ChiTribRogers