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Key to Rays' ALCS victory? Playing 'loose'

CHICAGO — A picket of saturated players parted, and Carl Crawford and Eric Hinske stood nose to nose. Hinske slugged him in the arm. Hard.

"You nearly broke my jaw in the pile," he said, wide eyes red.

Crawford cracked up and Jonny Gomes pumped another bottle of bubbly in Hinske's face, chanting "Get over it! Get over it!" and bouncing back into the fray by the liquor trough.

The Rays came to Chicago needing one win to close out the best-of-five American League Division Series, but they stumbled Sunday, looking more like the young and playoff-inexperienced players they were than the unlikely AL East champions.

On Monday, they got over it. They dictated their style of play from the first pitches. Starter Andy Sonnanstine delivered a hammer of a performance, B.J. Upton hit his second and third homers of the series, and the Rays exploited the details in winning 6-2 and advancing to the AL Championship Series.

"This is a group of guys that feel incredibly comfortable together," said first baseman Carlos Pena, who went 3-for-4 with two RBIs. "So we go out there and play loose and with a smile on our face. That goes a long way."

Sonnanstine, who had not won in seven starts since Aug. 18, never allowed the White Sox to build on a 5-3 victory Sunday. He never allowed more than one runner on base at a time in earning the victory, and the two home runs he allowed each came with two outs and the bases empty.

Sonnanstine allowed two earned runs on three hits and a walk with four strikeouts in 52/3 innings before yielding to J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour, who allowed just two baserunners in the final 31/3 innings. The white-towel waving, black-clad crowd was left to murmur and carp.

"It was loud. It was intense, but it was good," Howell said. "I don't want to say practice run, but it's good to know what it's like to win in the playoffs finally."

Upton hit home runs in his first two at-bats to hand Sonnanstine a 2-0 lead through three innings, and the Rays manufactured two more in the fourth off Gavin Floyd.

Cliff Floyd battled deep into a count with Carl Crawford on first and looking to steal then doubled to left with Crawford breaking for a 3-0 lead.

"I knew I wanted to disrupt him (Gavin Floyd) a little bit by getting a big lead, and it seemed he was more worried about me than Cliff," Crawford said.

Floyd took third on an errant throw home and scored when Dioner Navarro singled.

Game 4 felt different from Game 3, and the Rays sensed it.

"When you get a couple home runs, it changes everything. (Then it's) neutral site man, neutral site," Floyd said. "It's one of those situations where, you know what, when you got half the fans waving the towels, it just ain't the same. Period."

Key to Rays' ALCS victory? Playing 'loose' 10/06/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 7, 2008 1:49pm]
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