KANSAS CITY, Mo.
D avid Price was the first, and certainly the loudest, to race from the clubhouse into the dugout Sunday afternoon with what he admitted was the best news he ever got to share. "We won," he shouted. "We're the champs of the AL East." The Yankees had just made their final out in Boston, their loss indeed making the Rays champions of the American League East and setting them up to open the playoffs at home on Wednesday against the Rangers. There were a few hugs and high-fives, but the Rays weren't ready to celebrate yet. Having rallied moments earlier to tie their now meaningless game with the Royals, they felt there was still work to be done — and symbolism to be made — as they labored another hour to complete the 3-2 12-inning victory that gave them the title outright, finishing with an AL-best 96-66 record that was one
game better than the Yankees — then getting on with another wet-and-wild clubhouse celebration.
"It meant a whole lot to us," manager Joe Maddon said, his new gray AL East champs T-shirt soaked. "Just to validate the whole thing, to get one more win than the other team. We had the tiebreakers, etc., but in the back of my mind I just wanted to see one more win than the other one, and I think that's great."
The accomplishment of winning what is widely considered baseball's most rugged division — and for a second time in three years — is a lasting one, in some ways more rewarding than what is still to come because it is the reflection of a six-month battle and not a five- or seven-game snapshot.
"To win this division two out of three years, you're doing something," said veteran leftfielder Carl Crawford, enjoying a likely farewell tour after so many years of frustration. "I know the goal is to win the World Series, but to win the American League East is saying a lot, just saying what kind of team you have."
And a rare one: Since the Tampa Bay franchise started play in 1998, no other team but the Yankees has won it more than once.
"An incredible accomplishment," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said between sips of Dom Perignon. "Incredibly difficult. … Incredibly special. … Incredibly meaningful."
"Almost unthinkable," team president Matt Silverman said. "It's a testament to the organizational philosophy, but more so to the heart and character of the guys in the clubhouse. They battled through the 162 games. It's a marathon, and to do it in the fashion we did, and to win it on the final day makes it even more special."
And that's where what happened late Sunday afternoon mattered. The Rays knew from the Kauffman Stadium scoreboard that the Yankees were well behind (7-2 in the sixth, then 8-2) and that a Yankees loss was all they needed.
But trailing 2-0 in the ninth and held to three hits to that point, the Rays spun together one of their kind of rallies: single, strikeout, single, then the one big hit by the guy who hasn't had many, struggling first baseman Carlos Peña, doubling to left, his emotional reaction revealing the frustration of his .196 season average.
It took three more innings, and they rallied yet again — with another unlikely contribution, a two-out stolen base by Rocco Baldelli and a Royals error on Kelly Shoppach's hard-hit ball — then turned it over to closer Rafael Soriano to get the game over and the party officially started.
"How we came back, the character that our guys displayed, I think is something we've done all season long and I think will carry over into October," Friedman said. "And hopefully put us in position to have a lot of success in October."
And even as they sprayed and poured their way through another 200 bottles of Domaine Ste. Michelle champagne (plus 12 bottles of Dom Perignon for Maddon and the coaches) and 30 cases of Bud and Bud Light, they seemed focused on doing just that, the celebration somewhat tamer and considerably shorter than even last week's playoff clincher at the Trop.
"You got the feeling that guys expected to be here," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "And that's a great thing."
As much pride as the Rays took in winning the division, there are also practical benefits, and none bigger than starting with the first two games at home — 1:37 p.m. Wednesday and 2:37 Thursday — as well as the potential fifth and final. (Plus, by having the best record, they'd also have homefield advantage if they advance to the next round.)
"You say it's not really a factor, but to actually have it happen is definitely big," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "Either way you have to win ball games, but being able to play your first two at home I know for this group is pretty big."
"We always feel confident playing at home, so I don't think it really matters who it is," Crawford said. "We just feel comfortable there and that was the most important thing we wanted to do, was try to get the games where we started off at home."
And while the Rays were careful to say the right things about the 90-win AL West champion Rangers — "They present all kinds of problems," Maddon said — it certainly appears to be a more favorable matchup than facing the 94-win Central champion Twins starting in Minnesota. Especially when you consider the Rangers have a losing record on the road and have lost 10 of their past 12 at the Trop, including a three-game mid August sweep.
"I don't want to say it doesn't matter who we play," reliever Randy Choate said, "but I think we're good enough that we match up well with everybody in it, and we just do whatever it takes to get it done."
So do they like their chances?
"We won the East," reliever Joaquin Benoit, the former Ranger, said. "What do you think?"
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.