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Rays gain much by staying out in front

NEW YORK — They could have a banner sewn and attach it to one of the catwalks. Maybe a flag made to hang from the roof. Or a sign posted, or painted, on the back wall. (All depending, of course, on how many they need when this amazing season ends sometime in October.)

Be it for pride or for posterity, the Rays have good reason to want to hold on to win the American League East title and not settle for just — and who thought they'd be having that discussion — making the playoffs as the wild card.

"There's all kinds of benefits to it," manager Joe Maddon said. "And they're all contained within winning the division. And that's where I want our focus to be. … I don't want our guys thinking any other kind of way but that."

There would be satisfaction in being the first team besides the Red Sox or Yankees to win the AL East since 1997, and of doing it with one-fourth the payroll.

There would be history in being the first championship team from an organization previously defined by ineptness, with 10 straight 90-loss seasons and nine last-place finishes (by an average of 35 games).

But, more than anything, there's this: Winning the regular-season title would give them a better chance of winning more postseason games.

Here's why:

Playoff seeding

Wild-card teams can win it all — three did from 2002 to 2004 — but the system is designed to reward the teams (or at least two) that finish first.

The division champ with the league's best record gets to play the wild card (unless both are from the same division), and the champs with the second- and third-best records face each other.

The top two division champs get homefield advantage in the first round, and any division champ gets it over the wild card in the championship series. (The World Series is already determined, and the AL team has it thanks to Scott Kazmir's All-Star Game win.)

Homefield advantage

The Rays want to play as many home games as possible in the postseason. They are 53-21 at home (50-21 at Tropicana Field, 3-0 at Disney), the best home record in the majors.

Plus, they're 23-3 in front of crowds of 25,000-plus and 18-1 in front of 30,000 or more, which, presumably(!), would be the case for the playoffs — assuming the school's-in-session, gas-is-expensive, the-Trop-is-hard-to-get-to choruses are suspended.

To be one of the teams that opens at home, the Rays have to finish with a better record than the third division champ and have a seven-game "lead" over the Central-leading White Sox to do so.

In the first round, which is best of five, that means playing Games 1, 2 and 5 at home. In the best-of-seven championship series (and the World Series), that means Games 1-2 and 6-7.

The Rays are not only more confident at home but more comfortable. That's important, too, given all the other issues and distractions (family travel and accommodations, ticket requests, media obligations, etc.) that come with being in the playoffs, especially since many of the Rays will be first-timers.

Momentum

With a 2½-game lead over — and three fewer losses than — the Red Sox with 2½ weeks left, the Rays would have to at least stumble to not win the division. For example, if the Rays go 9-9 in their remaining games, the Sox have to go 12-5 to surpass them. (The three-game series that starts Monday at the Trop should provide some direction.)

But having been in first place for the past 56 days, 69 of the past 74 and 92 overall, the Rays would have to combat the perception — and, well, the reality — that they had "backed into" the postseason. Going in on a roll, with a division title, would certainly boost their confidence.

Level of competition

The way it looks now, the Rays as the East champs would play the Central winner, either the White Sox or Twins.

And though they'll say all the right things about how challenging it would be, it is a much easier assignment than facing the Angels or Red Sox. Plus, those two would have to play each other, which means that one would be out of the Rays' way if they get to the second round.

If the Rays were the wild card, they could have to play the Angels in the first round (and open at Anaheim), then the Red Sox in the second round (and open at Fenway).

Quality of celebration

The Rays could clinch a spot in the playoffs next week (technically as soon as Tuesday), which would be cause for celebration. Then they could do it again — bigger and better — the following week.

Rays gain much by staying out in front 09/11/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 12, 2008 2:26pm]
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