Rays headed to ALCS after win over White Sox
By RICK GANO
AP Sports Writer
CHICAGO -- B.J. Upton and these Tampa Bay Rays are headed home -- to get ready for the American League championship series.
Worst in the majors last year, the Rays will play for a spot in the World Series after finishing off the Chicago White Sox 6-2 Monday in Game 4 of the AL playoffs.
Upton homered twice, Andy Sonnanstine pitched a solid 5 2-3 innings and manager Joe Maddon's surprising Rays won 3-1 in the best-of-five series -- their first trip to the postseason. Next up, the Boston Red Sox or the Los Angeles Angels starting Friday.
"We feel like we belong and it's showing right now," Upton said.
After staving off elimination several times and winning a tiebreaker for the AL Central title, the White Sox were finally knocked out.
The loss dashed Chicago's hope for a championship -- days ago, local fans were thinking the Cubs and White Sox might meet in a Windy City Classic. But the Cubs got swept by the Dodgers and now both teams are done.
"They played better than us. There's no doubt. They pitched better. They execute better. They got big hits," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "They really did a tremendous job."
Upton, the game's second batter, homered to left-center to put the Rays ahead. He went deep again in the third, driving a full-count pitch from Gavin Floyd to center, and the confident Rays had a two-run cushion.
Tampa Bay, which never won more than 70 games during its 10 previous seasons, went from 96 losses last year to 97 wins and passed the big-spending Red Sox and New York Yankees in the AL East.
"It's a gratifying moment for all of us," Maddon said.
No longer bedeviled, the Rays won all year with young talent and improved pitching. Sonnanstine, who pitched a three-hit shutout against the White Sox at Tropicana Field in April, reversed a late-season slide that saw him go winless in his final seven starts.
He allowed two runs and three hits before J.P Howell relieved. Grant Balfour completed the four-hitter, striking out midseason addition Ken Griffey Jr. to end it.
Upton, who hit only nine homers in 531 at-bats during the regular season, also homered in Sunday's 5-3 loss. Benched by Maddon during the season for not hustling, the talented 24-year-old's power display came against a team that relied on homers all year and led the majors in long balls.
"B.J.'s special," Maddon said. "He's very capable of those types of games."
Tampa Bay increased the lead to 4-0 in the fourth when Carl Crawford walked and scored as veteran Cliff Floyd, a Chicago native, doubled to left. Dioner Navarro followed with an RBI single to finish Floyd.
Paul Konerko hit a solo homer for the White Sox in the bottom half and the white towel-waving crowd dressed in black had a reason to get excited. But Tampa Bay struck right back in the fifth against Clayton Richard as Akinori Iwamura singled and scored on Carlos Pena's single that made it 5-1.
Jermaine Dye hit a solo home run in the sixth to finish Sonnanstine.
"Hats off to him," Upton said. "He threw a great game when we needed it."
Tampa Bay kept adding on and Pena hit his second RBI single in the seventh -- after the White Sox intentionally walked Upton. Guillen, apparently upset when a close pitch from Matt Thornton to Pena was called a ball, had a conversation with plate umpire Jeff Kellogg as he headed back to the dugout after a trip to the mound.
The White Sox defeated Cleveland on the final Sunday of the season to get to a makeup game with Detroit the following day. They beat the Tigers and then Minnesota, 1-0.
After losing the first two games of this series at Tropicana Field despite leading in both, the White Sox came back home to win Sunday. And they were hoping for another three-game winning streak -- but the Rays were too good.
And now Maddon, who likes fashionable eye wear, fine wines, good books and inspirational slogans, has pushed a decade-long loser onto the doorstep of a pennant.
"We all came together and said we're going to play team ball," Upton said. "That's what we do, day in and day out."
Earlier in the week, Maddon spotted some fans on his way to U.S. Cellular Field wearing "retro Devil Rays stuff." He'll be looking for even more signs of the team's new popularity when he honeymoons in Europe next month.
"My goal is to see someone walking around either Rome or, you know, Barcelona or somewhere with Rays gear on," he added, promising to photograph it.
Maddon pointed to the Rays' ability to bounce back after losing their final seven games before the All-Star break as a big test. And he hasn't spent a lot of time reflecting on how he has taken a team that had 10 straight losing season -- with at least 91 losses in each of those years -- to the playoffs.
"I really have not permitted myself to totally sit back and absorb all of that yet," Maddon said earlier. "But there's some smaller amounts that I may have had a little bit of a thought like that."
Rays RF Gabe Gross made a nice leaping catcher at the fence in the first to rob A.J. Pierzynski of an extra base hit, maybe even a homer. ... Griffey struck out three times.