The scent of an American League East title hung in the air.
Hours earlier, these players had lost to the Tigers in a game that, had they won it, would have earned the Rays their first division title. So the next best thing was to watch the rain-delayed Red Sox-Yankees contest that, with a Red Sox loss, would determine if the Rays clinched their division early Saturday morning. Instinctively, they returned to the clubhouse. They were a team, and the lure of celebrating the moment drew them back.
Some peeled off their street clothes in the corridor as they approached the clubhouse, ready to exchange them for party wear to be doused with champagne. At approximately 12:52 a.m. ET on Saturday, Sean Casey of the Red Sox hit a fly ball at Fenway Park. Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner camped under the ball and squeezed it for the final out of New York's 19-8 win, setting off a roar from the Tampa Bay players.
And just like that, the Rays were champions of the AL East. Champagne corks popped and beer showers rained from one side of the clubhouse to the other. Another chapter of Tampa Bay's improbable 2008 ride to the top of baseball's toughest division was logged, and the second victory celebration within a week -- even more raucous than the first -- appeared headed hours away from its completion.
"Winning the division means a lot," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's a very powerful moment for the organization. To get into the playoffs is one thing. To do it as a division winner is entirely different, playing in the strongest division in all of baseball -- in all of the world, actually. It's a great feeling."
Carl Crawford, at age 27, is one of the team's elders. He has experienced much of the losing in the past, so the Rays' new stature could not have been sweeter to him.
"Oh, it feels good, man, to be on top of the AL East, I don't know if all the guys understand how big this is," said Crawford, currently disabled with a finger injury. "This is big for us, man. This is an historical division, this is real big."
James Shields also experienced a lot of the tough times and marveled at the turnaround.
"It's amazing, it's amazing," Shields said. "There are a lot of doubters out there. There are a lot of people who doubted us this year. But we got here and now we're here to stay.
"The whole season was a team effort -- a team effort, a Cinderella story. Every single game was won by a different person. It's unbelievable how it happened that way. It was a team effort."
A team effort and a team celebration, which explained the team's spontaneous return to the ballpark.
"We're all a team, we wanted to celebrate together, that's what it's all about," Shields said.
At first, there were the chants of "9=8! 9=8!" -- the team slogan coined by Maddon, who told his club in the spring that if nine players played hard for nine innings, they would come away with one of the eight available playoff spots. At one point, Maddon left the celebration only to return with a decanter of tequila, which players shared in the middle of the celebration.
"It's a team thing, us not coming back to have this celebration wouldn't have been a team thing," said Cliff Floyd, a pair of orange swim goggles resting on the top of his clean-shaven head. "We've done everything else as a team the whole year, so we had to do this as a team. [This is] a great ending to what we've worked so hard for from the beginning of Spring Training."
Carlos Pena danced in the middle of the clubhouse, executing a ritual normally reserved for the team prior to games.
"This is history," Pena said. "And every single guy in this clubhouse has something to do with us being here. This is unbelievable; everyone needs to enjoy this. This is just unbelievable."
Rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, who has played an integral part in the turnaround, smiled when asked if it had soaked in yet that the Rays indeed were the AL East champs.
"It's crazy, to come from what we've been to where we are at now," Longoria said. "And this [celebration] has been amazing. There was indifference in what everybody wanted to do, but I'm glad everybody made it back as a team. This is really cool."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.