Skipper wants Rays to let it all soak in

Skipper wants Rays to let it all soak in

ST. PETERSBURG -- When James Shields takes the hill on Thursday afternoon, if the Rays starter has time to pause for a moment to relish the fact that he is pitching in October, manager Joe Maddon won't mind. And if Carl Crawford -- a member of the Rays since 2000 -- seems a bit starry eyed when he first walks to the plate, no explanation will be needed.

Because 97 wins and an American League East championship banner certainly afford Maddon's long-beleaguered Rays a reason to smile.

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And when you are winning like Tampa Bay is winning -- in unexpected fashion -- Thursday's game isn't just the beginning of the postseason, it's the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime ride.

"Too many times you get to this point and you think it's going to happen all the time," Maddon said. "That's the one point I brought to them at the All-Star break. Listen, treat this with respect, it doesn't happen every year. You like to believe it, and I like to believe we're getting to that point where we're here on a consistent basis, but you never know. So while you're here, enjoy it.

"I'm not saying just be happy that you're here, and if we lose it's OK. No. Enjoy it. Soak it all up. Understand what's going on. Play our game and let's keep moving forward. But respect this moment, because you don't know when it's going to happen again."

For long-tenured Rays like Crawford, playing a postseason game in Tampa Bay was something conjured up only in his wildest dreams. Sure, the two-time AL All-Star could see the wealth of talent the Rays had built up, and maybe he could even start to picture days outside of the AL East cellar.

Still, those old losing habits die hard. Walking into Tropicana Field's locker room on Oct 1. and not doing the ritual end-of-the-season locker cleaning?

"It was a little different," Crawford said on Wednesday, standing in front of a locker packed full of postseason garb. "But it's just one of those things where you don't even think about it, you just deal with the moment."

On the top shelf of Crawford's locker lies a champagne bottle, a token to remind him of the Rays' first playoff-clinching celebration. These are the kind of moments Crawford has been witness to this season, his first winning season in the Majors.

"You want to pinch yourself," he said. "To see if you're dreaming."

Rays Records to Celebrate
2008 Record
Previous Record
Wins9770 (2004)
Home wins5741 (2004, 2006)
Series victories3420 (2005)
Series sweeps105 (2005)
Days in first place11120*
* Previous 10 seasons combined.

Even veterans like reliever Trever Miller -- who went to the postseason twice with the Astros -- take on childlike glee when the calendar flips to October.

"I'm like a kid at Christmas," he said. "I'm trying to stay up late and hope Santa Claus comes again."

Forget the holiday spirit, this is playoff spirit and the young exuberant Rays have every right to be humming "Joy to the World."

Tampa Bay has already done the unthinkable: they've upset baseball heavyweights in New York and Boston to seize the AL East crown. It marks the first time in more than a decade that a team not named the Yankees or Red Sox has won the division.

And they've already done the unprecedented, going from a Major League-worst record in 2007 to this season's 97-65 mark, despite having baseball's second-smallest payroll.

So just because the Rays are hungry for more October baseball doesn't mean they can't savor their first taste of the postseason.

"I've worked so hard to get to a point like this, this stature of play and October baseball," Shields said of the honor associated with being Game 1's starter. "We grew up looking forward to October baseball. We sit at home every October and watch October baseball. That's what it's all about."

And come Thursday at approximately 2:37 p.m. ET, that's what the Rays will find out.

"I'm curious about how everything's going to be," Crawford said. "From the crowd, to the game, I just can't wait to see how it's going to be."

Seven of Thursday's projected starting nine -- and all four of the Rays' slated starting pitchers -- are rookies in the postseason.

"I want them to enjoy it," Maddon said. "I want them to look around and take it all in. It matters."

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