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Rays savoring next playoff challenge

Rays savoring next playoff challenge

ST. PETERSBURG -- Come Wednesday, the center of the baseball universe will revolve under the white roof and catwalks of Tropicana Field, as the Tampa Bay Rays host the Philadelphia Phillies to open the 2008 World Series.

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"We've got it, man," third baseman Evan Longoria said after the Rays beat the Red Sox, 3-1, on Sunday to win the American League pennant. "We've got all the momentum in the world right now. We've exceeded all of our own wildest expectations, so this is all just a bonus.

"We enjoy it, the fans are awesome, they'll be out here 100 percent, for sure, and we're going to be tough to beat at home especially."

The Trop might have been hosting the hottest party in St. Pete right before midnight on Sunday, but come Monday afternoon, the Phillies will litter the outfield with fresh baseballs and try to get a grip on why the newly minted AL champions have amassed baseball's best home record.

"Bring it on," Cliff Floyd said. "Good team against good team, it's going to be a battle. We're looking forward to it. Hopefully, they've got too many days off, and we can take advantage of it. It'd be nice. But we can't expect that. We've got to sit back and go about our game plan and make sure we're ready."

Whooping it up and dousing each other in bubbly beverages in a slippery clubhouse, the looming visage of Game 1 starter Cole Hamels and the bats of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and company were an unwelcome distraction for the moment.

"We aren't thinking about tomorrow just yet," said David Price, who picked up the save in the clincher. "We are living in the present moment. That's what this team is all about. We don't harp on losses. They don't think on the next day. They focus on the task at hand."

But this celebration was not the final stage the Rays had decided upon when they finally clinched the AL East back in September. They have one more goal to cross off their lists, and the only way to do so is to somehow steal four more games from the City of Brotherly Love.

"This is what you dream about as a kid, getting the opportunity to play in a World Series," said B.J. Upton, who has hit seven postseason homers. "After all, we've been through over here, first to come back this year and do it, it's unbelievable. It's been a lot of fun, and hopefully, we can continue it on to next week."

WE MEET AGAIN
The Rays and Phillies have played five Interleague series, with the Rays holding a 10-5 advantage in wins, including a three-game sweep in 2001.
YearDateSiteWinnerScore
20066/16PHIRays10-4
6/17Rays7-2
6/18Phillies8-5
20016/12TBRays9-5
6/13Rays5-3
6/14Rays6-3
20006/5PHIRays5-3
6/6Rays5-3
6/7Phillies5-4
19997/18TBPhillies3-2
7/19Phillies16-3
7/20Rays5-2
19986/26PHIPhillies7-0
6/27Rays5-1
6/28Rays5-4

"We just have to go out there and play our game," reliever Dan Wheeler said. "There's a great team over there -- great hitting, great pitching, great batters -- so it's going to be a battle. I'm excited about it. They're the National League champs, so you're going to expect a good team."

Longoria was one Rays player to voice his opinion that Tampa Bay may have lost a little bit of its edge when it went up, 3-1, on the favored Red Sox, suddenly transforming in some circles to the popular choice to move on to the World Series.

It took a complete return to basics to get it done against the Red Sox in seven games.

"Now everybody thinks that we're going to lose again," Longoria said. "We were always the underdogs this season. When we got up, 3-1, people started believing in us. I don't know if we like that. We like being the underdog."

But how can a 97-win team that just bounced the vaunted Red Sox -- comeback champs deluxe -- still be considered a surprise club?

"To be honest, I think that role is gone," Price said. "Everybody expected us to fail all year from Game 1 to Game 162. We lost seven in a row going into the All-Star break and won our first 15 series after that. Underdogs don't do that. That's what a good team does."

Still, for the sake of handling their business against the Phillies, the Rays wouldn't mind one bit if the general public somehow reverted to viewing them with the skeptical eye reserved for overachievers and also-rans.

"I hope everyone doubts us again," reliever J.P. Howell said. "The Phillies are a better team than us, that's all I've got to say. I hope everyone does the same thing they've been doing."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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