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Rays happy for Thursday playoff start

Chalk messages on the sidewalk outside Ferg’s sports bar in St. Petersburg celebrate the Rays’ division championship, clinched after Friday’s games.

EDMUND FOUNTAIN | Times

Chalk messages on the sidewalk outside Ferg’s sports bar in St. Petersburg celebrate the Rays’ division championship, clinched after Friday’s games.

DETROIT — As the American League East clinching celebration got wetter and wilder after Friday's games finally ended, there were some important decisions being made.

In Detroit, the Rays were weighing such important matters as whether it was more appropriate to spray champagne or pour beer, and whether to vie for a swig from the prized bottle of Patron tequila or light up another cigar.

In Anaheim, the Angels were merely exercising the privilege of having the AL's best record to decide they would rather open the postseason in the division series that starts Wednesday, leaving the Rays to start on Thursday.

And it all couldn't have worked out any better for the Rays.

The division title gives the Rays homefield advantage in the best-of-five opening round, against either the Twins or White Sox. The Thursday start date gives them an extra day to get Carl Crawford healthy, their veterans rested, their pitching in order and the off-field distractions (tickets, family travel, etc.) resolved. And while the Rays, who lost 4-3 Saturday, are doing that, the Twins and White Sox could be battling it out with tiebreakers through Tuesday.

"I like the idea of getting rest right now," Maddon said. "I think it's going to help us."

The most tangible product of the Thursday start is that the Rays would use four starters (whereas the Angels, and Red Sox, with an extra day off between Games 1 and 2, will need only three) if the series goes that far.

Maddon said James Shields and Scott Kazmir would start the first two games, but he wouldn't commit to an order before knowing the opponent. However, the plan to limit Shields to one or two innings in today's regular-season finale would be a good indication he's starting Thursday either way.

Matt Garza figures to start Game 3, with the fourth going to either Andy Sonnanstine or Edwin Jackson.

"We're pretty comfortable with the five starters we've used all year long," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "I can understand how some teams may not want to be exposed to their fourth or fifth starters, but I don't feel that way at all.

"There's not a tremendous leap from (No.) 1 through 5 here where in a lot of places it's a quantum leap. To me, it could be big-time to our advantage."

With the four starters, the biggest decision the Rays face in setting their 25-man playoff roster by 10 a.m. Thursday will be whether to have six relievers and a 10-man staff (with 15 position players) or seven on an 11-man staff (and 14).

Maddon acknowledged that "conventional wisdom" is to carry 11 and that Hickey favors that plan, but it will be a primary topic of conversation when team officials meet Monday to shape the roster. "We're going to look at that very closely," Maddon said.

The extra relief spot could determine whether two or three make it from the group of Trever Miller, Troy Percival, David Price and the nonstarter between Sonnanstine and Jackson. The four definites in the bullpen are Grant Balfour, Chad Bradford, J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler.

The roster composition could also be affected by the status of Crawford, who is pushing to rejoin the lineup and was impressive Saturday in his first live batting practice since Aug. 14 right hand surgery.

If Crawford is healthy, it could impact Fernando Perez, and the difference between 14 and 15 position spots could be the difference in an extra reserve such as Dan Johnson or Justin Ruggiano making it.

"There are tough decisions," Maddon said.

Not having to travel and having the extra day should also help in navigating the off-field issues — which Maddon said are among "the tougher things to deal with at this time of year" — especially with so many first-timers.

The Rays will take Monday off and have workouts Tuesday and Wednesday. The three days without a game are a little much for the hitters, but the veterans who have been through it say the schedule should help.

"It should work out as far as the days lining up," Eric Hinske said. "I think it's good for us."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Rays happy for Thursday playoff start 09/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 29, 2008 11:37am]

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