Earning a spot in the playoffs early Saturday evening proved to be a gas, but there is too much work left to be done if the Rays want to -- as manager Joe Maddon has often said -- play in the last game.
"We're in there now, but now we have to win the division and the best record because that stuff matters," said Maddon after the Rays earned their first playoff spot with Saturday's 7-2 win over the Twins.
Saturday's victory combined with Toronto's 6-3 win over Boston pushed Tampa Bay's lead in the American League East to 2 1/2 games over the second-place Red Sox and reduced the Rays' magic number to six games. Any combination of Rays wins and Red Sox losses totaling seven games will make give the Rays their first division championship.
If the Rays do manage to win the division, they would host the opening games of their division series against the winner of the Central Division, which will be the White Sox or Twins.
After finishing with the Twins on Sunday in their final home game of the season, the Rays will embark on an eight-game, seven-day road trip to Baltimore and Detroit to end the season.
On a positive note, the Rays hold an 11-3 advantage over the Orioles this season, and they swept the Tigers at Tropicana Field in a three-game series in their only meeting of 2008.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox hold a commanding 6 1/2-game lead in the AL Wild Card race and their magic number to clinch a playoff spot is two. Boston will finish its weekend series at Toronto on Sunday before heading home to the friendly confines of Fenway Park for the Sox's final seven games of the season. The Indians will visit for four games before the Red Sox finish with three against the Yankees.
Should the Red Sox manage to track down the Rays and claim the division, the Rays would have to fly across the country to start the postseason in Anaheim against the Angels.
So don't look for the Rays to be saving their pitching -- or giving players too much rest, even if they clinch the division -- at least until the possibility of finishing with the best record in the AL is off the table.
Having the best record in the league assures that team of having the option to play in the Division Series of their choice, as well as having home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Currently, the Angels are in the driver's seat for the best record in the AL. Given that fact the Rays have the best home record in the AL, forsaking the idea of resting the team's pitchers and everyday players appears worthwhile.
Rays yearly records
|With 92 wins, the Rays already own the second-most victories by a team that had the Majors' worst record the season before. Only the 1991 Braves (94-68) have won more games. Atlanta was 65-97 in 1990.|
"Winning the division is real important," James Shields said. "Home-field advantage is huge, and it would be huge mentally. I think regardless of who we play, if we have more games at home, it's a big advantage for us."
In addition to striving to have the best record in the AL, there is another reason to not have too much rest.
"We want to stay sharp," Carlos Pena said. "You want to definitely have one day off, but you want to stay out there. You want to be sharp. I wouldn't want to take too much time off.
"We've already clinched to be in the playoffs, and even if we clinch the division [and can't catch the Angels], I want to stay with it and keep playing. I think most of my teammates who would probably tell you the same thing."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.