Carlos Pena, Matt Garza are 'Rays' of hope for cursed Cubs
March 14, 2011 11:16PM
Matt Garza (left) and Carlos Pena celebrate the Rays’ Game 7 victory over the Red Sox in the 2008 ALCS — so they know anything’s possible. | Getty Images
Updated: June 21, 2011 12:20AM
MESA, Ariz. — Has there ever been a more daunting height to scale in major-league baseball, a more impossible task in professional sports, than the Cubs winning a World Series for the first time since Geronimo was alive — or even getting to one for the first time since the sport integrated?
Of course not.
Well, except for maybe one case.
‘‘I know how possible it is,’’ Cubs newcomer Carlos Pena said, ‘‘because what people thought was impossible in the American League East happened. Twice.’’
If there ever was a bigger upset in baseball than the Cubs someday ending a centurylong drought, it has to be what the Tampa Bay Rays did just three years ago after a 10-year history filled with nothing but losing seasons and punch lines — nine of 10 years in last place, a $170 million payroll disadvantage in the division, and all of it against the home-field background of pin-drop decibel levels under a circus-tent ballpark.
With only the boldest forecasts in 2008 suggesting even a slight upward shift for the Rays, Pena and the rest of the team shocked the world — not to mention the Yankees and Red Sox — to win the AL East. Then they fought through the playoffs, including an epic ALCS against the Red Sox, to reach the World Series.
‘‘It definitely opens our minds to the possibilities,’’ Pena said. ‘‘And looking at what we have going on here in Chicago, I can’t help but in the back of my mind to kind of have a smirk on my face walking around, because I know how possible it is.’’
Pena either is on to something or has no idea what he’s dealing with.
If it’s the former, then the Cubs also might be on to something as they draw on that giant-killing history — whether intentional or not — adding the lefty-slugging Pena as a free agent and acquiring Rays pitcher Matt Garza in an eight-player trade.
Unless you believe in the title-sucking power of a bar owner’s goat, it’s hard to imagine longer odds than the Rays getting to the World Series in ’08 — and then beating the Yankees and Red Sox for the AL East crown again last year.
‘‘This would seem more feasible,’’ Pena said. ‘‘For us to win this division and go forth to the World Series, this is more [feasible]. This team is extremely talented, and obviously we have what it takes. In Tampa, it didn’t seem like we did — and then we did it.
‘‘That’s why I think it’s a cool thing to be able to have experienced, quote-unquote, the impossible miracle happen. And we were there, and we saw what it was all about.’’
Sure, but can that miracle really strike again — at a 97-year-old ballpark where the Yankees and Detroit Tigers have clinched World Series titles but never the home team?
After all, the Cubs also won 97 games in 2008, just like the Rays. And not even a dose of holy water from a Greek priest could prevent a three-and-out, first-round playoff loss.
But could the power of Pena’s bat and clubhouse influence, along with the power of Garza’s fastball and hard-ass approach, have an actual impact on getting this curse-busting thing done?
‘‘I think  showed that will perseveres over a lot of things,’’ said Garza, who won 11 games in his first full season in the big leagues that year — then beat the Red Sox twice in the playoffs to win the ALCS MVP.
‘‘We practically willed ourselves to that. We weren’t the most talented group. We didn’t have the big names. We had a few — Pena, [Carl] Crawford. [Evan] Longoria was still a new name. It wasn’t like we had big, big names. We didn’t make the big [trading] deadline moves. We got bits and pieces.
‘‘But we willed our way there. We told each other, push comes to shove, we’re all shoving together.’’
Nobody more than Garza, who got the Game 7 call in the ALCS after the Rays blew a 3-1 series lead. Garza gave up a first-inning home run — then no-hit the Red Sox until the seventh and won 3-1.
‘‘The desire to win, the will to win, is what’s going to get you where you need to go,’’ he said.
Desire certainly is in abundant supply on the North Side. And there are no Yankees or Red Sox looming in the National League Central.
But a World Series at Wrigley? Really?
“I come to this club with the idea that everything is possible,’’ Pena said. “And I truly mean it. I’m not just selling a dream. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen what people would say is impossible all of a sudden materialize right before my eyes.’’