Rays sweep doubleheader, reduce magic number to two

BALTIMORE — Tuesday seemed like it was going to end badly for the Rays, trailing by four with six outs remaining and looking defeated in doing so. But then they did what they've been doing all season: rallying when most teams wouldn't, winning a game they had no right winning, scoring six in the eighth and beating the Orioles 7-5 to cap the first doubleheader sweep in franchise history.

And now tonight could end in massive celebration.

The Rays are officially on the verge of an American League East division championship they covet, and they can clinch it tonight with another win and a Boston loss.

"It's right there for the taking," said Evan Longoria, whose homer was a big part of the rally. "We'll have a good chance (tonight). We've got to worry about our game, but just seeing the starters for that Boston game, I think they've got (Paul) Byrd against (the Indians' Fausto) Carmona, so I like our chances (tonight)."

Tuesday's comeback, at the end of a long day that began with a 5-2 win in the 5:05 p.m. opener before a few thousand fans at once-vibrant Camden Yards, was among the most impressive of the Rays' amazing season.

Certainly for how they did it, shut down and nearly shut out by Orioles rookie Alfredo Simon into the eighth, then suddenly roaring back, taking advantage of every O's miscue and coming up with big hit after big hit.

They started slowly, with a Ben Zobrist triple, a run-scoring groundout and a strikeout that made it 5-2 with two outs and none on. But Longoria crushed a long homer, the Orioles replaced Simon with reliever Jamie Walker, and it went something like this: infield single, passed ball, walk, pinch-hit RBI single by Jason Bartlett, wild pitch, two-run pinch single by Dioner Navarro, another pitching change, RBI double by B.J. Upton and a 7-5 lead.

"We just stayed in the game," Upton said.

"We just don't quit," Cliff Floyd said. "Nothing amazes me no more."

Meanwhile, Mitch Talbot worked into the fifth in his first major-league start, and Chad Bradford, Jeff Niemann and J.P. Howell took it from there.

"That was quite a comeback right there," manager Joe Maddon said. "Everybody contributed once again. The whole team got involved in that win. …

"Typical of our guys all year what you saw tonight."

And definitely for what it meant. The win was the Rays' 95th, surpassing the 1991 Braves' mark for the most after finishing the previous season with the worst record in the majors.

More importantly, it put them in position to secure what principal owner Stuart Sternberg clearly considers the biggest prize, more significant than just making the playoffs field and more satisfying than winning the postseason tournament.

"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," Sternberg said.

"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 it away if we can get this American League East title."

The Rays won the opener behind a typically solid effort by James Shields, who worked seven strong innings and tied Rolando Arrojo's 1998 team record of 14 wins in a season. The record had seemed like a mountain, as Shields failed once and Andy Sonnanstine six times, at matching it.

"It means a lot," Shields said. "I've worked hard enough to where I think I'm going to be able to get to this point on a consistent basis. From here on out that's my goal to be able to get those type of wins."

Shields probably won't get a chance to break it, however, or at least not this season. He is scheduled to pitch Sunday's regular-season finale, but even if he makes the start, which could change if the Rays have won the division title and can't catch the Angels for the best record, he likely won't work the requisite five innings.

For a long day, it was a good one.

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

Magic number

2 Combination Rays wins or Red Sox losses to win AL East.
Playoff tickets
going, going, gone

If you were planning to buy when the Rays put division series tickets on sale this morning, don't bother.

The Rays sold out Games 1 and 2 late Tuesday after a brisk Internet-only presale. Online sales were expected to begin at 9 a.m. today.

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg said he was not surprised at the heavy demand.

"It's postseason baseball," he said. "Postseason is few and far between. So I never expected anything otherwise."

Sternberg said the Rays would not reconsider removing the tarps covering the top areas of the upper deck for the first or second round (they will for the World Series). He also reiterated they are saving a "very limited number" of seats for fans who make deposits on 2009 season tickets.

Playoff dates, times and opponents are not yet set.

Photo gallery online

Check out a photo gallery from Tuesday's doubleheader sweep, plus listen to an audio report on the team at rays.tampabay.com.

Rays sweep doubleheader, reduce magic number to two 09/23/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 24, 2008 7:50pm]

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