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Excitement for Tampa Bay Rays' celebration grows

BALTIMORE — There's always plenty of pomp when the Rays play their home opener, but the circumstance will be unprecedented tonight as they return to Tropicana Field to raise their first division and league championship banners before the soldout game against the Yankees.

"It's something for us to be proud about," said LF Carl Crawford, the most veteran Ray. "It's just nice to know you get to go through that whole ceremony thing after having the year we had. It's a reminder of what we did last year and what we're trying to do this year."

"It's going to be awesome," RHP James Shields said. "Being a part of the first team that puts up a banner is pretty exciting."

LHP Scott Kazmir is excited to throw the first pitch — well, the first one after Gov. Charlie Crist's ceremonial toss.

"It's kind of an honor to go out there when they're unveiling the banners and that whole deal," he said. "And I can't wait until (Tuesday) when we get our rings."

With the banner raising, the ring ceremony and other ceremonies throughout the seven-game homestand, manager Joe Maddon just wants to make sure there isn't too much celebrating.

"Everyone's talking about the unveiling of the flags and the rings, and that's all wonderful. But I want us to get beyond that also," he said. "We've got to get back to keeping our mind on what's going to happen this year and not being reflective on last year so much.

"It's important to recognize accomplishment. I believe in all that stuff. But more than anything, I want us to get back to playing our game."

B.J.'s back: With his rehab from offseason left shoulder surgery complete, B.J. Upton is expected to be in the lineup tonight batting leadoff and playing centerfield, which should help the Rays in several ways.

"The other guys have done a nice job, but B.J. really is exceptional in regard to the amount of ground he can cover," Maddon said. "He plays that really shallow centerfield that takes away the bloops and the line drives, and he can still go over his head (to make plays). Furthermore, his offensive side … the power and the speed and the baserunning and all that kind of good stuff."

With Upton at the top, 2B Akinori Iwamura will now hit eighth against right-handers and ninth against lefties, flip-flopping with SS Jason Bartlett.

For every action: Upton's arrival means the departure of OF Matt Joyce, who was optioned to Triple-A Durham after Sunday's game. Joyce, the Tampa native acquired from Detroit in December, impressed the Rays with his power and smooth defense though he hit only .100 in three games.

"This guy is going to be a very good major-league outfielder," Maddon said. "He's going to be a complete player with power. He needs to play every day to really be developed."

Joyce said he enjoyed the experience, knew he was "kind of the odd man out, the only one with options," and didn't feel he yet showed the Rays what he can really do. So now?

"You play every day, and you play hard and hopefully make it back up. And next time you come up, you stick."

Home boys: The players are just happy to get back to the bay area after spending the spring in Port Charlotte. They like playing at home, too, given their big-league best 57-24 record last season.

"That's something we've taken a lot of pride in," Crawford said. "We saw how excited the fans were, and we definitely don't want to let those guys down. When we get home, we just want to protect that area."

Miscellany: Grant Balfour walked three of the five batters he faced in the ninth, throwing 14 balls among 24 pitches. … Maddon is deciding between Ben Zobrist and Gabe Gross to start in right tonight. … The Rays started 3-3 for the fifth time in six seasons. … They are 6-2 on Easter.

Block party

A block party for Rays fans is planned from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday in downtown St. Petersburg, on Central Avenue between Second and Third streets.

Excitement for Tampa Bay Rays' celebration grows 04/12/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 13, 2009 10:35am]
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