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Rays clinch club's first playoff spot

Rays clinch club's first-ever playoff spot

ST. PETERSBURG -- "Pinch me," read the sign behind the third-base dugout.

Few words could better describe the feelings of Rays fans, who saw their team bust out from the basement in 2008 and make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history after never winning more than 70 games in a season, which they did one time during a fourth-place campaign in 2004.

Tropicana Field had a soul Saturday afternoon, and every time one of Joe Maddon's Mohawk militia did something right, the echoes of the sellout crowd of 36,048 responded with raucous cheers. And there were plenty of cheers, because the Rays did plenty right in a 7-2 win over the Twins that served as the turnkey to enter the postseason party.

The cheers reached a crescendo at 7:22 p.m. ET, when Joe Mauer lifted a 3-1 pitch from Trever Miller toward the foul area along the third-base line. Evan Longoria moved toward the stands, zeroed in on the ball and clutched it for the final out of the game. The catch set off a wild celebration on the field that spilled over into the clubhouse.

"It was just like any other play, I just had to run over there and catch the ball," Longoria said. "After I caught it, I kind of came to reality, and it was like, 'Hey, we're going to the playoffs.'"

Saturday's win combined with a loss by Red Sox allowed the Rays to expand their lead in the American League East to 2 1/2 games over the second-place Red Sox and reduce their magic number to six. Now, any combination of Tampa Bay wins and Boston losses adding up to seven will give the Rays their first AL East title.

The Rays' Division Series playoff destination will shake out in the final week of the season. Assuming Tampa Bay wins the AL East and Boston wins the Wild Card, the Rays will open at home against the Central winner, either the White Sox or Twins, while the Red Sox would open at the Angels, who have the AL's best record. Should Boston win the East and the Rays get the Wild Card, the Rays would open at Anaheim, while the Red Sox would host the Central Division champion. The Division Series is a best-of-five set.

All season, Rays baseball has been defined by a combination of pitching, defense and timely hitting. Those three components were in play during Saturday's win.

"We got our hits, we're swinging the bats better, but it's still about pitching and defense," Maddon said. "And you're able to win games like that because of your starting pitching and defense."

Scott Kazmir started for the Rays and pitched six innings of shutout baseball to gain his 12th win of the season, which seemed appropriate since he was the guy back in the spring who told anyone who would listen that Tampa Bay was a playoff team.

"I kind of liked it when [Kazmir] said it," Maddon said. "And he went out there tonight and gave us one of his better performances."

Defensively, the Rays had their typical highlight reel featuring a diverse cast of characters, such as Longoria, who charged Carlos Gomez's third-inning bunt and then delivered a strike to first for an out. Dioner Navarro ran to the railing at Tampa Bay's dugout and came away with Nick Punto's foul pop in the fifth, and Fernando Perez closed out the inning by making a diving catch of Denard Span's sinking line drive in center field. In the sixth, Rocco Baldelli made a diving catch to kill a Twins rally.

But the biggest play in the field came in the fourth after the Twins loaded the bases with no outs. Former Rays player Delmon Young then hit a shallow fly ball to center field. Perez made the catch and threw to the cutoff man, Carlos Pena. Mauer did not try to advance from third after the catch, but Pena spotted Justin Morneau too far off the base at second and made a snap throw to shortstop Jason Bartlett, who made the tag for the second out. Kazmir then got Brendan Harris on a flyout to right to end the threat with no runs scoring.

"That was a key part of the game, especially bases loaded, no outs," Kazmir said. "We get that double play from a catch in center field and a cut-off from Pena, you couldn't ask for anything better.

"That's the way our season has gone. Everything that could go right has."

October dreaming
The Rays are the second AL club to go from last place one season to the postseason the following year. Here's a look at how long it took expansion clubs to reach the playoffs.
Club
Start
Playoffs
Arizona19981999
Colorado19931995
Florida19931997
Houston19621980
K.C. Royals19691976
L.A. Angels19611979
Montreal/Wash.19691981
N.Y. Mets19621969
San Diego19691984
Seattle/Milwaukee19691981
Seattle19771995
Tampa Bay19982008
Toronto19771985
Wash./Texas19611996

Pena got the Rays' offense started with a two-run double in the second. Longoria, Baldelli and Navarro had RBIs, Fernando Perez had a home run and veteran Cliff Floyd put an exclamation point on the offense with an emotional solo home run in the seventh inning. Floyd lost his father in 2007 and the memories of the man known as "Big Flood" accompanied him around the bases.

"I got one for him, man," Floyd said. "It doesn't get any better. I went back in the back [of the dugout] for a minute, and it just touched me for a second. I don't want to get teary-eyed, but it was unbelievable knowing that I was here and knowing that he was probably right here watching every step. I miss him like crazy, I know my mom does. But we're all together as a family."

Maddon came up with a slogan Rays players have on T-shirts that says "9=8," which means nine players play hard for nine innings, and they will take one of Major League Baseball's eight playoff spots. He reveled afterward about that slogan coming to fruition.

"Nine equals eight means that theory and reality came together," Maddon said.

Longoria called the slogan "something for us to believe in.

"And now we're going to be one of those eight teams," Longoria said. "I don't know all the facts and all the history, but I know we haven't been here ever. So that's the biggest thing. Now we have to worry about winning the AL East and bringing this thing home."

How did the Rays get to this point? Should everyone be totally shocked about their 2008 season?

In hindsight, there were indications as far back as Spring Training that the culture of the Rays had changed. In March, Tampa Bay seemed to have a purpose as well as a "we're not going to take it anymore" attitude that was personified in an unusual brawl with the Yankees that stemmed from Rays reserve Elliot Johnson running over a New York catcher late in a game in Tampa.

That experience seemed to gel the team, and the seeds for a special season were planted. Helping to cultivate those seeds were Floyd, and other veteran players such as Troy Percival, Dan Wheeler, Trever Miller and Eric Hinske.

Adversity presented itself from the start of the season when the Rays began without Kazmir, who sat out the first month while nursing a sore left elbow. Other injuries began to pile up. Willy Aybar, Matt Garza and Floyd all went on the disabled list. But when one player went down, another player stepped in and got the job done. And that continued to be the Rays' way all season.

"I've never been on a team with this many players contributing," James Shields said.

And now, all of those many contributions have added up to a spot in the playoffs.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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