Rays are AL East champs

From left, Todd Priest of St, Petersburg: Joe Mullen of St. Petersburg; and Kurt Gunderson of Clearwater celebrate the Yankee's win over the Red Sox making the Ray's division champs at Ferg's Sports Bar early Saturday morning.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

From left, Todd Priest of St, Petersburg: Joe Mullen of St. Petersburg; and Kurt Gunderson of Clearwater celebrate the Yankee's win over the Red Sox making the Ray's division champs at Ferg's Sports Bar early Saturday morning.

DETROIT - This wasn't, of course, the way the Rays had envisioned celebrating the monumental accomplishment of winning the American League East.

Not with players scattering after the game then coming back to the Comerica Park clubhouse in street clothes and changing back into party attire (shorts, T-shirts and goggles).

Not some 2 ½ hours after a second straight frustrating loss to the last-place Tigers on Friday.

And not by donning their new AL East championship caps and T-shirts while having to root for, of all teams, the Yankees to beat the Red Sox, which they finally did 19-8 in a twice-rain-delayed game that ended at close to 1 a.m.

Still, it was something to celebrate, and the Rays did, with another wet-and-wild party, players in the middle of the clubhouse, bobbing, chanting "9 equals 8" and dousing each other and anyone else who ventured in.

"Look at this, man" Carlos Pena said, in a dry corner of the room. "Look at what we have accomplished this year. We know how tough the American League East is. Let's be clear about that. And guess what? We're the champions. We're American League East champions. This is unbelievable. Everyone here knows how incredible this is."

"This puts the Rays on the map for a long time," said veteran Cliff Floyd. "This is not a team set up, to say we've got to win this year because we've got $200-million invested. To each his own, but at the same time you win with talent, you win with guys who are mature, you win with guys who are hungry."

Finishing first was one thing.

Finishing ahead of the Yankees and Red Sox was another.

"Unbelievable," said B.J. Upton. "They beat us so much. So much. And we'd get up so much for those games just to spoil their playoff bids and all of that. For us to be on the other end, it feels unbelievable."

The Rays made winning the AL East a priority, as much for the significance of prevailing over the grueling regular season as the tangible benefits in the postseason.

With a payroll barely a fourth of the AL East heavyweights but at least twice the heart, they were the first team to win the East besides the Red Sox and Yankees since the Orioles in 1997.

They'll have homefield advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs, which will start Thursday at Tropicana Field against the Central Division champs, either the Twins or White Sox. (The Angels locked up the AL's best record Friday and chose to play the series that opens Wednesday, with an extra day off.)

"It's historic," team president Matt Silverman said amid the celebration that got wilder as the night went on.

"It's something that can't ever be taken away from the organization. The team has won 96 games, played the toughest schedule in all of baseball, was doubted throughout the entire season and answered every single question. The character of this club is unparalleled. They play as a team, they believe in each other, it really points to baseball being a team game.

"I think the message is that anything is possible if you believe. And it's a message to everyone. Even if the odds are stacked against you, you can succeed."

Or, as executive vice president Andrew Friedman simply said, "Incredible."'

Players dressed and left after the frustrating game, most headed either back to the team hotel in suburban Dearborn or to a private party at a restaurant at the downtown MGM Casino, which would have minimized any celebration. But with the Yankees taking a big lead, the party was back on the clubhouse.

"A lot of guys left and came back," manager Joe Maddon said. "There were a lot of cell phone conversations. I think once they saw the score there was no doubt."

It was the same clubhouse where the Rays lifted champagne in 2004, but for much less significant reasons, a Lou Piniella-led toast to acknowledge not finishing last for the first time and winning a then-record 70 games,

"We're having a little better time than in '04," said Carl Crawford, one of the veteran holdovers. "I can't believe this, but I'm happy we did it."

Maddon was proud of how they won it, and how they celebrated it.

"It's fantastic, it's wonderful, it's all the superlatives you can gather," Maddon said. "I really feel good for everyone. That's what it comes down to. Looking at the joy on everyone's face, to me that's the most gratifying part of this entire moment."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com

Rays are AL East champs 09/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 29, 2008 12:30pm]

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