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Rays clinch AL East title

DETROIT

This wasn't, of course, the way the Rays had envisioned celebrating the monumental accomplishment of winning the American League East. Not with many players coming back to the Comerica Park clubhouse in street clothes and changing back into party attire (shorts, T-shirts and goggles) after scattering in different directions after the game. Not after a second straight frustrating loss to the last-place Tigers on Friday. And not by donning 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 today 52 minutes after midnight. 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.

"It's fantastic, it's wonderful, it's all the superlatives you can gather,'' manager Joe 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.''

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

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg spoke at length this week about the significance of the regular-season championship.

"The thing we had really set our sights on was the American League East," Sternberg said. "That's a pennant. That was a pennant when I was growing up, that was a pennant afterward. It wasn't a wild card. I love the wild card. I love that it's available to us and it's available to the White Sox and the Twins and the Red Sox.

"But the real, the big enchilada, was winning the AL East, as we can hang a flag up there that says that, and we can keep that always. That is something that will stay with us. And then we can go from there and go on to the ultimate goal, which is the world championship.

"To be able to put the stamp on the American League East, which is probably the toughest division in all of sports, in all the major sports, is a true exclamation point on what is a marathon, which is a 162-game season. The playoffs, we're going to obviously do our best, and we're shooting for the ultimate goal. But you can never take away if we can get this American League East title."

The banner won't be hung until the spring, but there are more immediate benefits for the Rays.

They get homefield advantage in the first round of the playoffs, opening at Tropicana Field on Thursday, with the potential to host three of the five games.

They also get to face the Central Division champs (the White Sox or Twins) while the more potent Angels and Red Sox match up. And if they get to the second round, they would have homefield advantage over the Red Sox (though not the Angels, who with the Rays' loss clinched the AL's best record).

The Rays (96-64) felt they earned it, having been in first place for 107 days overall, including the past 71 and 84 of the past 89. Twice in two weeks they were on the verge of losing the lead to the Red Sox and came back to win the next two games.

"It's been awhile," Pena said. "That's a testament to the character of this ballclub. We try not to look over our shoulder. We just play our game."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com

Banner day!

Winning the AL East means a lot as the Rays:

. Are the first team besides the Red Sox or Yankees to win it since the Orioles in 1997.

. Get homefield advantage in the first round, opening at Tropicana Field on Thursday with the potential to host three of the five games.

. Face Central Division champs (White Sox or Twins) while Angels and Red Sox match up.

. Would have homefield advantage over the Red Sox but not the Angels in the second round.

. Will soon put tickets on sale for a potential Division Series Game 5. Check raysbaseball.com for details.

Rays clinch AL East title 09/27/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 27, 2008 5:56pm]

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