In the split second after Grant Balfour's pitch sailed past Ken Griffey's bat and into Dioner Navarro's glove for the final out, and before the massive pileup formed around the mound, the sound of the Rays' AL Division Series-clinching victory over the White Sox was stunning silence. As if it were collective disbelief. But onward the amazing Rays very much go, into the American League Championship Series, starting Friday against the Red Sox at the Trop, just four wins from the World Series, and another four from a world championship. "Somebody just said it's eight more wins, and that's the first time I heard that," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said, on the fringe of the clubhouse mayhem.
"And it's not a lot. It's not a lot. It's obviously a long way to go, but eight wins is not a lot."
The Angels-Red Sox game was just under way as the Rays celebrated, and they said all the appropriate things about not caring whom they faced next.
Unless you listened closely.
A matchup with the rival Red Sox, Cliff Floyd said, would be "fitting" for baseball, and "people would love to see it."
Then he admitted that the Rays would, too.
"Battle on, baby; it's going to be a battle from Day 1," he said. "They hate us, we hate them, let's go for it."
And there was Sternberg, who said his pledge to "wait for the World Series" to join the party could be amended if the Rays win the right to advance.
"If the next matchup lines up how it might and we take those guys," Sternberg said, "that might be my World Series."
Just the chance to play for the AL pennant is the latest achievement as the Rays continue to further their remarkable rise from baseball's worst team last year to one of the final four this year.
"It's an incredible accomplishment," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "It's something we're really going to take tonight, and maybe a little bit of tomorrow, to really enjoy, but we're anxious to get started on Friday. To be this close to the World Series is obviously incredibly special."
"I can't believe it," said leftfielder Carl Crawford, the longest-serving Ray.
"Amazing," said pitcher James Shields, who likely will start the ALCS opener. "Absolutely amazing."
As they did when clinching their franchise-first playoff spot, then the AL East Division championship six days later, the Rays turned it into quite a celebration. What started with group hugs on the field moved quickly into the visitors clubhouse — draped with plastic sheeting and soon drenched in the mix of champagne and beer — then eventually into the stadium hallway, where family and staff waited.
"We're pretty good celebrators," manager Joe Maddon said.
They went quickly through another 200 bottles of G.H. Mumm champagne (plus six bottles of high-end Cuvee R. Lalou 1998 for the brass), a dozen cases of beer and the now ritual shots, at Maddon's instigation, of Patron tequila.
"We want to do this as many times as possible," first baseman Carlos Pena said.
The improvement they showed this season is evident here, too.
"Everyone gets a little better," pitcher Scott Kazmir said. "We're getting good at this now. We're starting to get better at unraveling champagne corks and everything."
"It took a little while to get the corks out the first time, now they're popping right off," Balfour said. "They say they get better and better, and that each one feels a little bit better. I can't imagine what the next two possibly could feel like."
The Rays led from the start of Monday's Game 4, and the anticipation built as remaining outs dwindled in the 6-2 victory. "It was like a World Series," shortstop Jason Bartlett said. "There were two outs to go, then one."
"It was unbelievable," Navarro said. "A fastball right by one of the best hitters in the game. I caught it and I was kind of in shock a little bit and then I realized we won the series. It was just dead silence."
But only for a moment.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]s.com