Lenny Megliola: Rays a scary surprise in ALCS

Lenny Megliola

This was supposed to be the year the Cubs would win the World Series, a hundred-year curse be damned. It was also the year the 100-win Angels looked absolutely ready to crush their own personal curse, of more recent vintage, by beating the Red Sox in a first-round playoff joust.

This was NOT the year the team formerly known as the Devil Rays would rise up and bedevil all comers. What, the RAYS? They just weren’t supposed to do this. The Cubs and Angels, done, fried, outta here, and the Rays live to play another day? Crazy.

The Cubs and Angels have every right to feel cursed. The Red Sox expunged theirs in ‘04. The Rays have only been around 10 years. They are shadowed by no curse. They weren’t even relevant. If a team plays in a stupid ball park, finishes last and nobody goes to watch, does that team really exist?

Here’s how much this has all changed for the Rays. After Jed Lowrie’s game-winner Monday night, owners John Henry and Tom Werner said “we owe them something.”

That would be the Rays, who had the audacity to finish first to Boston’s second, and took the season series. One more thing: Truth be told, these teams just don’t like each other.

But there’s no ignoring the Rays anymore. They’re the best story in baseball and they don’t believe the final stone has been thrown.

“I think we’ve got our hands full,” said general manager Theo Epstein.

The Rays have risen from feel-good story, a team run on the cheap, to a legit voice to win the 2008 World Series. The Rays’ financial people could teach the blowhards in Washington a thing or two about efficient budgets.

Suddenly, the Rays are looked at as a team without flaws. The pitching, starters to bullpen, is terrific. The lineup doesn’t knock your eye out, but the Rays have found a bunch of ways to beat you, from speed on the bases to walk-off drama. Forget Phil Jackson. Joe Maddon is the new Zen master. The Tampa Bay skipper is articulate, creative, bold and a man of his word. Just ask B.J. Upton, who Maddon benched twice for not hustling. We think the talented outfielder has gotten the message.

Yep, the Rays are SCARY.

The Red Sox may be less so after Mike Lowell was scratched from the ALCS. The guy has gone from World Series MVP to DNP, manager’s decision. He’s hard to replace, but not impossible. Not when Terry Francona can pencil in Kevin Youkilis as his third baseman. When all of this October business is played out, all that Youkilis has meant to this team will finally settle.

There are reasons why a team gets this far. Players stepping up hasn’t been a problem for the Red Sox. Would it surprise you if Gil Valazquez helped Boston win a game? Valazquez spent 11 years in the minors. He has one big-league hit. He’s due.

Lowrie had a lousy September. So, would he shrink in his October baptism? If he doesn’t come through against Scot Shields and the Angels go on to win Game 4, how many of you would’ve been cool with Daisuke Matsuzaka taking the mound for Game 5? Not me.

Lowrie beautifully botched that plan. Here are two words you just don’t hear any more: JULIO and LUGO.

OK, it wouldn’t hurt if David Ortiz began to, well, you know, and if Hideki Okajima and Justin Masterson would walk fewer, and if Jacoby Ellsbury started stroking the ball past infielders instead of at them. But there isn’t really much to complain about. Were I a betting man, I’d put down a few coins on Dustin Pedroia, after a soft ALDS, going crazy against the Rays.

And you have to believe there’s another big game coming from Josh Beckett that will have you smiling and thinking, Oh yeah, I remember THAT Beckett.

Maddon may have his players thinking they’re playing with house money, but don’t be fooled. They’re out to finish the job. The Rays may be neophytes in all this, but Maddon said all those important games played in front of 55,000 in Yankee Stadium and at never-an-empty-seat Fenway Park took the stage fright out of the Rays.

The stage is bigger now, the lights hotter. The Red Sox are used to it; the Rays just got their first taste. Rays-Red Sox.

“I don’t have any concerns,” said Justin Masterson. How’s that for confidence! The lanky kid went on: “The Rays are a good team. We’re a good team.”

The better one from now on gets to the World Series. Settle in, folks.

Lenny Megliola is a Daily News columnist. His e-mail is