Rays of gratitude

SARASOTA, Fla. — When the Orioles arrived in Boston last September for their final regular season series at Fenway Park, Rays manager Joe Maddon — his own team leaving Boston for the Bronx trailing the Red Sox in the wild card race by two games — asked to leave a bottle of wine in the visiting clubhouse for Orioles manager Buck Showalter attached with a note that said "Go get them."

Baltimore had long since been eliminated from the postseason, and was on its way to completing a 14th straight losing season, but the Orioles would have their say in the postseason race. Seven of their final 11 games were against the Red Sox.

"I knew," Maddon said. "I saw the Orioles getting better. I knew what was going on. I know how Buck is. I knew they weren't going to go away. All of that stuff was in the back of my mind."

Nearly six months later, Showalter said he can't remember whether he got that bottle of wine in the cramped, aged visiting clubhouse of Fenway.

"I'm sure Joe did [send it]," Showalter said. "He's a thoughtful man. Of course, you've got to remember, the Boston clubbies probably wouldn't give it to me."

What happened since then now has its place in baseball lore. The Orioles finished the season's final month with a 15-12 record, and took they five of seven from the Red Sox, culminating in what's been called the greatest night in baseball history.

Four teams played for their postseason lives on the final day. The Cardinals edged the Braves for the NL wild card. And at Camden Yards, the Orioles won a three-hour, 26-minute rain-delayed marathon, scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth off closer Jonathan Papelbon to beat the Red Sox, 4-3.

Moments after Robert Andino's two-out, game-winning base hit dropped in shallow left field, the Orioles piled atop Nolan Reimold at home plate — a celebration not seen in Baltimore in years. A photo of the scene hangs in the Orioles second-floor team offices here in Sarasota.

"All the pieces fell together," Andino said. "It goes to show you that when all the pieces come together, we can compete with anyone."

Minutes later, the Rays locked up a playoff spot by completing an incredible comeback of their own, rallying from a seven-run, eighth-inning deficit to beat the Yankees, 8-7, on Evan Longoria's 12th-inning walk-off homer.

"Honestly, we didn't know the situation up until maybe the last two games," Orioles third baseman Mark Reynolds said. "When it's all on TV and everyone's doing the math, we knew about it then. People always root for the underdog. Boston was supposed to win. They already had commercials about being in the postseason. And then you had underdog Tampa Bay coming up [from behind]."

That night, Rays infielder Sean Rodriguez texted Andino, his childhood friend from Miami.

"Hey man, appreciate it," he texted.

"The moment went by too quickly," Andino said. "We didn't talk that night. We talked a few days later. They had some celebrating to do. We had some packing to do."

On Monday afternoon, the Orioles open their Grapefruit League season in Port Charlotte, the spring home of the Rays. For most of the past 13 years, the Orioles and Rays shared the label of AL East afterthoughts. Competing in baseball's toughest division alongside the Yankees and Red Sox, their fight was often for fourth place.

But the Rays have made the playoffs three of the past four years, proving success in the AL East can be had without exorbitant payrolls. The Orioles hope eventually they can do the same.

"For years, we were the middle children of the division," Rays relieverJ.P. Howellsaid. "We're not the Yankees and we're not the Red Sox, so we were always looked past. Everyone's looking at the pretty siblings and we're the ugly ones who never get looked at."

In some ways, that's what made events of last Sept. 28 special — two AL East teams not named the Yankees and Red Sox writing their own happy ending. One had everything to play for — another had nothing to play for but pride. But the Rays realize that without the Orioles, they might not have made the playoffs.

"They're the epitome of what baseball's truly supposed to be about and how it's played," Rays pitcher James Shields said about the Orioles. "Just to watch that dogpile when the game was over, they were dogpiling when they knew they were going home the next day. That was so awesome, and you know it's good for baseball. That's why you play. It takes to back to when you were a kid."

And on Monday, when the Orioles meet the Rays for the first time since helping to save their season — they will face each other 18 times during the regular season — Tampa Bay wants to show its gratitude.

"It's not because they won, it's because they went after the moment," Maddon said. "You can't ask for a team to win, you can only ask for a team to play the game the right way. Our gratitude extends to their professionalism. It's even better because of the way it turned out, but the Orioles were a significant part of our run because they remained pro the whole time.

"I definitely want to talk to Buck and make sure Buck hears that from me."

The Orioles, who won't send some of their starters to Port Charlotte for the split squad game, are looking forward. They still relish last year's finish, but want to move beyond that moment.

"We learned how to compete that last month," Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said. "Hopefully we can carry that into this year. Anytime you can win, it can be contagious, but I think most of the process is that last year is last year. No games from last year count toward this year. That's the good thing, because everyone starts out 0-0."

Still, the memory — and the connection between those AL East "middle children" — remains.

"We owed it to the integrity of the game," Reynolds said. "We owe is to the fans to bust our tails. I thought it was more of a professional thing than anything. We could have easily rolled over and let everyone beat us and not give a crap. Buck's always telling us about playing to the last out and playing hard and never giving in. That's what we did."

"It was fun, but not quite as exciting as making the playoffs," added Reynolds, who went to the playoffs with Arizona in 2007. "That's where I want to get back to."

Shields said after seeing the Orioles finish last season, he wouldn't be surprised if they feed off their September run .

"Obviously, it helped us out, but they played the game the right way," he said. "You don't find that very often. I think you're going to see a little different Baltimore Orioles team because of that. I think they proved to themselves that no matter who they play, they can beat them."