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For Tampa Bay Rays, AL East title is still the big carrot

By winning the American League East Division again and having banners for their high-spending foes to see,   the Rays players would also get to enjoy homefield advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs.

DIRK SHADD | Times

By winning the American League East Division again and having banners for their high-spending foes to see, the Rays players would also get to enjoy homefield advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs.

As it stands now

If the AL playoffs started today, these are the matchups:

• Rays* (84-55) at Twins (83-57)

• Rangers (76-63) at Yankees (87-53)

* Wild card

rAYS vs. playoff teams

vs. Twins: 5-3 (2-2 home)

vs. Rangers: 4-2 (3-0 home)

vs. Yankees: 6-5 (3-3 home)

.fast facts

'Red' number

17 Combination of Rays wins/Red Sox losses needed to ensure finishing ahead of Boston

'Black' number

21 Combination of Yankees wins/Rays losses to ensure finishing behind New York



TORONTO — Despite what they say, the Rays really would be happy just to make the playoffs.

And with four losses in their past five games, a tough Toronto team awaiting this weekend and only a bad week's cushion — 6½ games over the Red Sox — in the wild-card race, that's probably what they should be concerned about.

But these Rays insist they have more to play for, that finishing first in the division — especially their division, the American League East — is the primary goal.

"We want to win the division," starter James Shields said. "There's no doubt about it."

So until they no longer can — and with a 2½-game deficit and seven games remaining with the division-leading Yankees, they'll have plenty of opportunity — that's what they're going to be focused on over the next 31/2 weeks, if manager Joe Maddon has his way.

"I want our players to think that way," Maddon said. "It's not about staying ahead of the Red Sox, it's about catching the Yankees."

Certainly, the Rays have their reasons, from myriad strategic benefits of homefield advantage in the first two playoff series to the ample pride and prestige of beating out the two big-city, big-money behemoths who previously ruled the East.

"Just to be in a position to compete for a second AL East title in three years is something special," team president Matt Silverman said. "That title, and homefield advantage, would be significant."

"Any year that we or any team can finish ahead of either the Yankees or Red Sox is memorable," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "Finishing ahead of both is Herculean; that's what makes the AL East title all the more remarkable."

A closer look at why it matters:

Homefield advantage

By winning the division (and having the best record of the three first-place teams), the Rays would have homefield advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs. (The NL's win in the All-Star Game took care of homefield in the World Series.)

That means they host the opening and potentially decisive games in each series: Games 1, 2 and 5 in the best-of-five division series; 1, 2, 6 and 7 in the best-of-seven league championship series.

Both have their advantages.

By opening at home, the Rays should, in theory, have a higher level of comfort and confidence playing before their fans in a friendly and frenzied environment and with fewer logistical issues and distractions, with the chance to seize the initial momentum. (Though their success on the road this season and the bonus of "getting away" could make for an interesting counter.)

"You can argue it both ways," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "But I think you certainly feel more comfortable at home, in your own clubhouse, with your own fans supporting you."

And by finishing the series at home, they would not only enjoy the same emotional momentum of the home crowd at the season's most crucial juncture (see Game 7 of 2008 ALCS vs. Red Sox) but also the basic baseball benefit of the final swing.

"It's always an advantage," Friedman said, "to have the last at-bat."

Furthermore ...

With the majority of the games at home (three of the five and four of the seven), the Rays would have some specific elements in their favor:

Weather: One thing the Rays love about Tropicana Field, they know it's going to be 72 degrees, and they're going to play. October weather in Minnesota, where that beautiful new outdoor ballpark might not seem like such a good idea anymore, and New York can be rather unpleasant and detrimental, especially to the Rays' game of speed, defense and pitching. Texas weather can be a different challenge, with summerlike temperatures still possible.

What goes up: There's obviously randomness to balls hitting the Tropicana Field catwalk (as the Twins enjoyed earlier this year), but overall familiarity with the tricky white roof and the other, um, distinguishing characteristics of the Trop should be a definite plus for the Rays.

Cowbell Nation: As much can, and will, be said about the Rays' overall lack of attendance, fans are going to fill the Trop for postseason games. And when they do, the place becomes a little bit crazy. In 51 games the past three seasons with crowds of 30,000-plus, the Rays are 39-12. "Though our road record this year has really propelled us, we historically fare much better at home," Silverman said. "Our players clearly get a bump the times when the house is full of our own fans."

Dollars and sense: Though it wouldn't affect this year's team, having more games at the Trop means more revenue for the organization (maybe $1 million for each) and can only help in the future. Being at home cuts down on travel expenses, as they have to make only one trip to each opposing city instead of two.

Pride factor

There's something to be said for beating the big boys, and the Rays not only enjoyed that experience in 2008, but getting to be reminded of it each day at home with the division champions banner that hangs above leftfield.

"Putting that up was just as important as winning the ALCS," Shields said.

The case can be made that prevailing in the grueling six-month division race is a more significant accomplishment that winning a five- or seven-game playoff series. Especially in their neighborhood, given the resources the Yankees and Red Sox have, and the improvement the Blue Jays and Orioles are making.

"To win the American League East is probably one of the best accomplishments in all of professional sports," Maddon said. "If you're going to win a division, win that one. That's one of the tougher ones to win, whether it's football, basketball, hockey. To win the American League East in baseball is a very difficult thing to do, and it's a great accomplishment."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

For Tampa Bay Rays, AL East title is still the big carrot 09/09/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 10, 2010 9:58am]

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