NEW YORK — The Rays were eager Monday afternoon to announce that tonight's home opener was sold out, even if there were a limited number of obstructed-view, scattered single and handicapped accessible seats remaining. They noted not only that it was their third straight home-opening sellout but that at 27 hours until first pitch, it was the earliest they'd sold out since the 1998 inaugural.
But what would be really big news is if tonight's crowd of around 36,048 isn't their only big deal.
"I think people come in with different expectations," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "Generally, in years past they've come and they want to be there for opening game. Now I really do believe they want to be there for the opening game of what could be the beginning of something pretty special. This is really a complete new beginning for us. And it looks like, fortunately, we are hitting the ground running."
The Rays built considerable momentum during the offseason as they changed their name, uniforms and colors and seem to have extended that with a major-league best-matching 18-8 spring and a 3-3 start to the season.
"I think the fans of Tampa Bay are wonderful fans," manager Joe Maddon said. "We have to do our part to get them out there on a consistent basis by playing better baseball. To this point we've done that. We've got to keep up our end of the deal, and I think the folks will show up."
The Rays also hope bigger — and louder — crowds make Tropicana Field more of a homefield advantage, having gone 37-44 there last year and 41-40 in Maddon's first season.
"It's got to become more of a homecourt advantage," Maddon said. "It kind of had been in the past when you played right around .500 ball there, but I want it to be even more than that. And the fans play a big part in that."
ZOBRIST SET BACK: INF Ben Zobrist's return to the majors appears delayed until May after he had to have pins inserted in his still unhealed fractured left thumb Monday. The pins will be in for at least two weeks, then he has to be cleared to resume baseball activities and needs to play in some minor-league games.
FLOYD SORE: DH Cliff Floyd was scratched from Monday's lineup due to right knee soreness but was on-deck to pinch-hit in the ninth. His availability will be determined day to day.
KAZ ON THE HILL: Ace LHP Scott Kazmir will pitch at the Trop today, but rather than face the Mariners he will throw 60-75 pitches in a 3:45 p.m. simulated game that is essentially glorified batting practice. LHP Kurt Birkins (inflamed elbow nerve) will also throw; Willy Aybar, Nathan Haynes and Elliot Johnson will hit. It's an important step in Kazmir's recovery from the Feb. 26 elbow strain: If all goes well he could advance to the first of three extended spring/minor-league games, seeking a late April return.
COOL GARZA: Fans and team officials may be excited for tonight's home opener, but Rays starter Matt Garza insists he won't be too revved up. "U went through my opener,'' he said. "It's a big deal for the fans, that's awesome for them, but it's just another game."
MISCELLANY: First-pitch temperature was 48 degrees. & The Mariners shuffled their pitching again to start the series with lefties Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn. & After an 0-for-14 start, 3B prospect Evan Longoria had three hits Monday for Triple-A Durham. & Sunday's telecast drew a 3.4 rating (averaging 60,652 TV households), which FSN said was a 79 percent increase over its first 2007 game, which was on a Monday afternoon. & C Josh Paul won't head to Durham; he signed a minor-league deal with the Astros. ... Yankees SS Derek Jeter left the game with strained left quad; the Yanks hope he's back in a week.