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Rays relish first taste of October

Rays relish first taste of October

ST. PETERSBURG -- The scent of champagne floated through the lower levels of Tropicana Field, out onto the turf and back again.

And when the bubbly ran dry, the Rays turned to domestic beer and import specialties, dousing each other and jumping around with the enthusiasm of young children.

One by one, ice chips flying, players and coaches cracked open bottles and cans, dancing, singing and spraying each other.

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It was the scent of the Rays' franchise-first playoff clinch, a victory perfume that doesn't ever get old -- particularly when it has been 11 years in the making.

"This was about as tough of an environment to play in in baseball," long-tenured Ray Rocco Baldelli said. "It was difficult to come here when we were losing. Times were tough."

A moment later, Jonny Gomes and Eric Hinske snuck up on Baldelli, each pouring cans of beer over the outfielder's head. Nearby, Evan Longoria -- sporting a Rays bathrobe -- opened his mouth and indulged in a showering of his own from several Tampa Bay coaches.

Saturday night, the bitter beer never tasted sweeter.

"This is special because of what the organization has been through, and what my boys who have been here a long time have been through," Cliff Floyd said. "Me being here for the first time, I'm just ecstatic. These guys are more than that. I don't know what the word is for more than that."

Carl Crawford -- a Ray since 2002 -- described it as his wildest dream coming true.

"I've got to hold back my emotions a little bit with everything we've gone through," Crawford said. "It feels so good to be here."

For the Rays, who have been on the cusp of clinching since Thursday, it felt even better to do it on their own terms.

When Longoria caught Twins catcher Joe Mauer's foul popup for the final out, the accomplishment finally hit the Rays' third baseman.

"I didn't know what to do with the ball," he admitted.

It didn't matter, as the bench emptied and a mob scene erupted around reliever Trever Miller, who was the last arm on the hill. The confetti poured down on the sellout crowd of 36,048, who promptly got on their feet and flooded the Rays' home dome with thunderous applause.

"I've been through the lean years here, and I know what it means to this town," Miller said. "I know what it means to be out for this town at that moment. I wanted that moment. I really did."

The celebration that followed was so emotionally charged that Miller later stole a quiet moment to walk up the first-base line.

"I had to catch my breath, I couldn't breathe," he said. "I had to walk away and regroup and go back in and join it."

Round two of the celebrations -- which brought more beer and dancing from bullpen coach Bobby Ramos -- brought the simpler moments.

The pure joy in the hugs from player to player. The exaltation of James Shields, who triumphantly held up a newspaper photo with the caption, "They're In!" And manager Joe Maddon clutching a bottle of Dom Perignon 1999 Classic that was waiting on his desk post-win.

"The greatest moment of my life," catcher Dioner Navarro said.

The backstop shared a tearful hug with Maddon on the field, and said proving all the Rays critics wrong made the celebratory drinks taste "a heck of a lot" better.

"A lot of people thought we weren't going to make it," Navarro said. "But it's still September, we are still in first place [in the American League East], and now we are going to the playoffs."

Tomorrow, their voices will be, at best, a hoarse whisper. But Saturday night, the celebratory screams -- uttered even by those with little vocals left -- couldn't be contained.

"It's as it should be," a soaking wet and smiling Maddon said. "Gratifying. When I look at this, I think of all the lives it impacts, and not just the people in this room, but all the complementary people around the team. And that's what matters. It matters for the entire community."

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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