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Rays clinch playoff spot

St. Petersburg

All that talk about the importance of postseason experience appears to be overrated. Because after the Rays on Saturday did the implausible, if not the impossible, in clinching their first playoff appearance, they acted like they knew exactly what they were doing and put on quite a show. "You know, we play pretty good," said veteran Troy Percival. "But I think we celebrate better." There was a festive and anticipatory feel throughout the day at sold-out Tropicana Field, but the party officially began at 7:22 p.m. when third baseman Evan Longoria caught Joe Mauer's foul to seal the 7-2 win. Players raced onto the field, throwing their gloves in the air and themselves at each other. A massive celebration, including a seemingly endless stream of champagne spraying and beer soaking and a victory lap around the stadium and atop the dugout to share the experience with the fans, continued for hours.

"We act like we've done it before," Jonny Gomes said. "I don't think it's that hard."

It was a special moment for so many people in so many ways, as the Rays finally put their horrid past behind them and became the second team in history, joining the 1991 Braves, to go from the worst record in the majors to the playoffs the next season.

It was for Carl Crawford, the player who has been here the longest and been through the most losing. "It feels even better than I thought it would," he said. "You think back to all the old times, but right now this one moment erases all the bad times. … I didn't know if we'd be doing this in this room."

For bench coach Dave Martinez, who was a player on the inaugural team. "From 1998 to 2008, this is unbelievable," he said. "Incredible. I played 16 years and this is probably by far the finest moment I've ever had."

For manager Joe Maddon, who has worked tirelessly to transform the team, and first thought of his father, Joseph, who died in 2002, then made a rare trip across the foul line and onto the field. "I had to get out there and hug everybody," he said. "We did the appropriate hugging in the dugout, then we took it out on the field. I had to — I'm a hugger. And I'm a cryer."

And for the new ownership group, for executive vice president Andrew Friedman, for the trainers, for the clubhouse staff led by Chris Westmoreland, for longtime PR man Rick Vaughn, for the entire organization.

"It's not like other clubs," team president Matt Silverman said. "This is something nobody thought would ever happen and we get to celebrate it. It's a fantastic accomplishment and it only happens once; you only have your first time once."

As optimistic as Stuart Sternberg's ownership group was when taking over in October 2005, Silverman said: "I'd be lying to say we expected it. We hoped it could happen. We wanted to put ourselves into position so that it could happen, But there are some things that you can't predict.

"There's some magic going on here, and we're going to ride this as long as we can."

In between sprayings and showers — they went through 200 bottles of Mumms Brut champagne and 15 cases of beer, then ordered more — the Rays insisted this was just the start of the fun.

They hope to have four more celebrations — for winning the AL East (they lead Boston by 2½ and could clinch that by Tuesday), and each of the three postseason rounds. Plus, they want to have the AL's best record.

"This," Maddon said., "is the beginning."

The Rays wore new hats and T-shirts with Maddon's catchy 9=8 catchphrase, reflecting how it would take nine players playing hard for nine innings to become one of the eight playoff teams. The clubhouse, the scene of so much frustration the first 10 seasons, was draped with banners of the team's new colors and the sunburst logo, and no one was safe from a soaking that Westmoreland said would take "an all-nighter" to clean for today's game.

"It's cold, it hurts your eyes a little bit but it's incredible," Friedman said. "It's an incredible experience."

"I don't know much, but the one thing I do know is that the Tampa Bay Rays know how to throw a party," Rocco Baldelli said. "Everyone who had celebrated before said that was some kind of celebration."

Not bad for first-timers.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com

Rays playoffs tickets

Tickets go on sale to the public at 9 a.m. Wednesday at raysbaseball.com. Fans can still register for a special online presale until 11:59 tonight. A random drawing will be held Monday, and winners will be able to buy tickets online Tuesday via a special link and password. 4C

More coverage

Once again the Rays took advantage of good breaks to earn the victory. They also got a terrific start from All-Star Scott Kazmir, bouncing back from the worst of his career. 3-5C, 1-2A

On the Web

More photos at rays.tampabay.com. And for more coverage, check out the Heater, blogs.tampabay.com/rays

Today | Rays vs. Twins

1:40, Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg

TV/radio: FSN; 1250-AM, 680-AM (Spanish) Pitchers: Andy Sonnanstine, Rays

vs. Francisco Liriano, Twins

Rays clinch playoff spot 09/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 22, 2008 10:38am]

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