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AL East title gives Rays huge homefield edge

DETROIT

Today, it is permissible to dream the impossible.

As a wild-card team, the Rays were a terrific story of perseverance and pluck. An underdog of uncommon distinction. As the American League East champions, they are something altogether different.

Today, the Rays are serious World Series contenders.

The change in status is not semantics or formality. It is not simply the separation of champion and also-ran. In Tampa Bay's case, it could be the difference between the season ending as soon as Oct. 5 or as late as Oct. 30.

You see, as division champions, the Rays get homefield advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and no team has been better in its own park this season.

In fact, in the past decade, only three AL teams have matched Tampa Bay's 57-24 record at home, and none have topped it.

"Talking to other players around the league, I know not many people like having to play at the Trop," said James Shields, the possible Game 1 starting pitcher. "It's the turf, it's the mind-set, it's the confidence we have there."

And, four weeks from now, it may be remembered as another one of the seemingly endless pieces that fell in place so perfectly for the Rays in 2008.

Just consider the difference between life as the wild card and as the AL East champion.

If the Rays were the wild card, for instance, they would fly home from Detroit tonight, get back on another plane on Monday and fly 3,000 miles to Anaheim, Calif., to be in time for a mandatory workout on Tuesday.

And they would be playing an Angels team that has had two weeks to get its pitching lined up, instead of Chicago or Minnesota, who are still playing for the AL Central crown and may have a one-game playoff on Tuesday.

That's just the opening-round benefit.

The way the playoffs are set up now, the Red Sox and Angels meet in the first round, effectively eliminating one of the more scary opponents in the postseason. And, should Boston beat Los Angeles, the Rays would have homefield advantage in the American League Championship Series.

Not to mention, the All-Star Game victory means the AL has homefield advantage in the World Series.

"Homefield," Rays left-hander Scott Kazmir said, "means everything."

In some ways, the Rays have already done the hard part. They have already survived a six-month regular season against one team that is filthy rich (Boston) and another that is obscenely rich (New York).

For a team of modest means, you could argue the champion­ship in the AL East is more impressive than winning 11 games in October. The post­season may be where a team grabs glory, but the regular season is where you gain respect.

"There are no flukes in a 162-game season," Rays president Matt Silverman said.

So now that they have gotten here, now that they have eclipsed almost all that was expected of them, what is the best-case scenario going forward for the Rays?

The Red Sox beating the Angels in the division series would be a start. The Rays have a winning record against both Boston (10-8) and Los Angeles (6-3), so they shouldn't have to fear either. But eliminating the possibility of a West Coast trip, and having homefield advantage on Boston, is too appealing to pass up.

As far as the White Sox or the Twins, the choice is not so simple.

The Rays would seem to be a more talented team than Minnesota, but they have a nagging fear of the Metrodome. The stadium can be ridiculously loud and the Twins have learned to tailor their game around the ballpark's quirks.

And then there is the post­season history in Minnesota. The Twins won their only two World Series titles (in 1987 and '91) mostly because they went 11-1 at the Metrodome.

These days, that Metrodome impact may be more historic than realistic. Since 2002, the Twins have gone 2-8 at home in the playoffs, and they have lost their past six postseason games there.

As far as the White Sox, their rotation is a little more impressive than Minnesota's and they certainly have more power in their lineup, but they are not built for Tropicana Field. Chicago has the worst record in the American League (4-16) on artificial turf.

Rays manager Joe Maddon certainly seemed to suggest the Rays would have more of an advantage against Chicago, based on the style of play.

"The Twins play like us, and in the same kind of building as we do. Their record on turf is very good, naturally," Maddon said. "Whereas the other team, the White Sox, isn't. They play outside, they're not used to that inside element, and so there are all of those different things to contend with.

"So I don't know if Minnesota kind of negates, in some ways, our homefield advantage, or lessens it. Whereas a team that's not used to playing inside, we may have more of an advantage with. That's probably the strongest thoughts I've had in trying to pick an opponent to this point."

If nothing else, the odds have shifted a little in Tampa Bay's direction this weekend. The AL wild-card team has advanced to the World Series only times in 13 seasons. The AL East champion has made it seven times.

Maybe that means nothing in 2008. Maybe it holds little historical significance.

But it looks pretty good from where the Rays will soon be sitting — in their own dugout.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

AL East title gives Rays huge homefield edge 09/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 29, 2008 5:12pm]

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