Tropicana Field had a feeling like never before, and this is after a season in which the Rays posted the best home record in the Major Leagues at 57-24.
"I definitely had a lot of nerves today," said James Shields, who started for the Rays and picked up the win. "How could you not? This is the postseason. I've never been here before. I had the whole family watching me. After the first inning, I felt pretty good.
"[The crowd] was amazing. This is what it's all about. After the first inning, after I got the first out, I couldn't even hear myself think out there. And after I got the last out, walking in, I didn't even know what to think. The crowd was amazing today."
Rays rookie Evan Longoria set off a roar when he deposited Javier Vazquez's first pitch of the second inning into the left-field stands to give the Rays a 1-0 lead.
"I was nervous," Longoria said. "I think if you're not nervous in this situation, you're really not soaking in the moment. ... I knew [Vazquez] was going to try and get ahead early in the first at-bat, so I was planning on swinging first pitch, no matter what."
Dewayne Wise silenced the crowd in the third with a two-out, three-run homer off a 2-2 pitch from Shields to give the White Sox a 3-1 lead. What could have been a crippling blow to a team with what could have been a delicate psyche did not spell disaster for the Rays, who answered in the bottom half of the inning with three runs, highlighted by Longoria's second home run of the game, to give the Rays a 4-3 lead.
Count Shields among those most impressed by the way his teammates responded.
"When I gave up the lead, our guys came back right away," Shields said. "All I wanted to do was hold them after that. We responded really well. I think we're a relaxed team and this is what we're going to do."
Shields gave the Rays 6 1/3 innings before leaving the game in the hands of Grant Balfour, who took over with the bases loaded and the Rays leading, 6-3. The hard-throwing right-hander struck out Jose Uribe for the second out then struck out Orlando Cabrera to end the inning after exchanging words with Cabrera during the at-bat.
"When I gave up the lead, our guys came back right away. All I wanted to do was hold them after that. We responded really well."
-- Game 1 starter James Shields
The Rays' bullpen went from having the worst ERA in the Major Leagues in 2007 at 6.16 to having the fourth-best at 3.55 in 2008 -- so the way the game finished out should have come as no surprise. J.P. Howell pitched a scoreless eighth before Dan Wheeler got the final three outs in the ninth, surviving a solo homer by Paul Konerko en route to picking up the save.
The bullpen has been "good all year," Rays catcher Dioner Navarro said. "And we didn't expect nothing more and nothing less, just another game. And we did what we've got to do to win the game and that's the bottom line."
Not only did Thursday's win follow a familiar pattern for the Rays, it reaffirmed the team's belief in how it went about changing the culture of a franchise that had never won more than 70 games in a season.
"We've been playing like this the whole year -- why change now?" Navarro said. "Why do something different now? It's the same game. Twenty-seven outs, three bases, one home plate. There's nothing strange here. It feels good winning the first one, especially in a five-game series. And we're feeling pretty good about ourselves. We know they can come back at any time and we have to keep doing what we've been doing to win games."
Veteran Cliff Floyd, who is one of the few players on the team with playoff experience, sounded like a proud papa after the game.
"It was nerve-wracking, because it was the first [playoff game] in Rays history," Floyd said. "I felt for some of the guys early. ... I'm glad it's over with now, we can move on and just play baseball. That's what it is after the exotic wears off and the first pitch and the first at-bat wears off. It's just baseball."
And that can mean fun.
"Yeah, I enjoyed every minute of it, absolutely," Shields said.