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Maddon's dream becomes a reality

Maddon's dream becomes a reality

ST. PETERSBURG -- Steering a ship that had gone a Major League-worst 66-96 in 2007, it would have been easy for Rays manager Joe Maddon to set sights on a .500 season.

Anything but last place for the Rays -- who finished in the American League East cellar every year but one in their 10-year inception -- could arguably be deemed improvement.

But the third-year skipper didn't concede, and he certainly didn't settle. Instead, this spring, Maddon believed.

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And the freshly innovative biking enthusiast was willing to go public with his idea that nine players, playing together for nine months, would be one of baseball's elite eight teams with an invite to October.

9=8.

"If you are going to come out with a statement that's a little complicated and bold like that," reliever Trever Miller said, "you'd better back it up and you'd better make it believable."

And when Miller recorded the final out in Saturday night's playoff-clinching win, Maddon and the Rays had made believers out of everyone.

"We pulled it off," Miller said. "The '9=8' we talked about from Day 1 in camp -- everything [Maddon] said has come to fruition."

This spring, few outside the Rays clubhouse believed in a postseason race.

But when ace pitcher Scott Kazmir boldly made the claim in Spring Training that the Rays intended on going to the playoffs, it wasn't just wishful thinking.

"I really did [believe]," Kazmir said, as the pitcher -- and Saturday's winner -- got a heavy celebratory beer shower from his teammates. "I really did, I knew we had something here. I knew we had depth, I knew we had the pitching. I knew we had something here."

And if Maddon had a shred of doubt, it was well hidden underneath his trademark Hugo Boss glasses and boundless optimism.

"He is a very gifted manager, and maybe [with the clinch] he will start getting some due," closer Troy Percival said. "He had to deal with a lot, and he knew right away it was going to take them three or four years to get this organization down the path he wanted. He changed the whole organization's philosophy. I mean, look at how much fun this clubhouse has every day."

Maddon's feel-good vibes and positive mantras haven't just spilled over onto the playing field, they've infiltrated into the way the Rays go about every aspect of the game.

After Thursday's series-opening loss to the Twins, recent callup Fernando Perez sat dejected in front of his locker, disheartened by his play. Reliever Grant Balfour approached the rookie and let him know how things get handled in Tampa Bay.

"He said, 'Thirty minutes,'" Perez said, quoting the oft-used rule Maddon has enacted. "Thirty minutes for a win and thirty minutes for a loss. It's all the same. And it stuck with me."

Maddon's words have done just that for his young squad.

And as the third-year skipper wiped tears -- or possibly champagne? -- from his eyes on Saturday night, Maddon's smile lit up the JumboTron and caused a thunderous applause from the sellout crowd of 36,048 at Tropicana Field.

And then someone asked, what does 9=8 feel like?

And the man so full of wisdom gave a breathtakingly simple answer.

"It feels," Maddon said, looking around in wonderment, "like this."

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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