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Simply smashing

ST. PETERSBURG — The dramatic hoisting of the championship banners was designed, as is tonight's pregame ring ceremony, to commemorate last season's success before the Rays move on.

And then they went out and staged a welcome back celebration in a 15-5 home opener bashing of the Yankees that looked an awful lot like 2008.

"Honestly, I can't imagine it going any better than it did," manager Joe Maddon said. "It really was thrilling to be out there. It was such a carryover. It was so much the last part of last season all over again, which you're not supposed to, I don't think, necessarily feel.

"But the way this all came to pass today, it made it all very special."

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg called it "the first night this franchise has had to just purely enjoy the moment," and it couldn't have been scripted any better. The early-arriving Tropicana Field sellout crowd of 36,973 was loud and alive as the Rays returned to the turf for the first time since the World Series and having spent their first spring away from home.

"I think it just went perfectly," Carl Crawford said.

There was offense. A grand slam by Carlos Peña on a six-RBI night, homers by Jason Bartlett and Pat Burrell, a seasonlong hitting streak for Evan Longoria, 17 hits and a couple of touchdowns on the board.

There was pitching. Six and two-thirds impressive innings for 2-0 Scott Kazmir, who scattered six hits, struck out six and got into the seventh with only 100 pitches.

There was defense. Just-off-the-DL centerfielder B.J. Upton made a catch — back to the field, steps from the wall, over his head — that had everyone from Sternberg on down invoking the name of Willie Mays. And another later by Crawford, who climbed the wall in leftfield.

"I had fun just watching the game," Kazmir said. "Start to finish, it was really good. You had a grand slam, good defense, stolen bases, some web gems. I can go on and on. It seemed like every inning there was something that really stood out."

Maddon had some concern going into the night that the Rays might get too caught up in the celebration.

"I was just curious to see how it was all going to manifest itself with all the stuff going on and all the emotion. The fans were fantastic," he said. "I didn't know if the Yankees were going to respond and it was going to be more difficult for us. You just don't know how that's going to play, but our guys came out really good right from the first pitch."

Instead it was the Yankees, in the most unexpected role-reversed position of watching the Rays raise their division and league championship banners, who looked dazed.

"It's a reminder you didn't accomplish what you set out to last year," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of the ceremony. "You're trying to put that behind you, but it's gonna stare us right in the face tonight."

Starter Chien-Ming Wang was pulled four batters (and no outs) into the second after allowing eight hits and three walks, and a few innings later Girardi started pulling his starters after a sloppy and embarrassing performance. It got so bad that by the end they brought in infielder/outfielder Nick Swisher to pitch the eighth (he struck out Gabe Kapler and kept the ball.)

There were some differences from past Rays home openers beyond the obvious, the classic-styled white banners that were hung above leftfield commemorating the AL East and league championships, and as there will be tonight when the players get their AL championship rings.

"It doesn't feel like we're digging out of a big hole on opening night like in the past," Sternberg said. "Even though you start every year with the same record as everyone else, the doubts are there. But they're certainly not there at all this year."

Instead, there are expectations. And, on this night anyway, a glimpse that they can be met.

"We showed a little bit of everything," Crawford said. "We showed some speed, we showed some power, we showed good pitching, we showed defense.

"We showed all the things that we do that help us win games. That's how we won last year."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com

Simply smashing 04/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 17, 2009 1:58pm]
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