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Tampa Bay Rays return to playoffs with win over Baltimore Orioles

ST. PETERSBURG — With the final out finally made, the party got started at the Trop Tuesday night. The Rays bounced in a group hug, danced when they wanted to, sprayed champagne and poured beer and smoked cigars and came back on the field to celebrate the second postseason berth in franchise history with the fans. (Yes, there were fans.)

They made it very clear how good it felt — except for maybe when Matt Garza was ambushing anyone he could with beer, champagne then just trays of ice water — and how much it meant to them.

"This," David Price said in the middle of the clubhouse mayhem, "is awesome."

"So good,'' Carl Crawford said.

But also — starting from the moment when Rafael Soriano struck out Adam Jones for the last out of the 5-0 win over Baltimore — so different from how it felt during their unexpected first foray into October two years ago.

"Obviously you revel in that moment, but it's different this year in a sense that I'm already looking forward to the next moment," manager Joe Maddon said. "And I think that's a good thing. It gets to the point where you expect to be in the playoffs on an annual basis. The first time you do it — we talked about that magical moment, and I'm not saying it isn't still magical — but you're a little bit more pragmatic in a sense the second time through."

And as soon as they wipe the Domaine Ste. Michelle champagne and Bud Light from their eyes, they'll be looking ahead.

"This can't be enough," said third baseman Evan Longoria. "When you talk about making the postseason, it's something that everyone wants to do in spring training. But once we made it, now we've just got to keep going forward.

"We've been to the divisional series. We've been to the ALCS. We've been to the World Series. Now it's just time to win it."

More immediately, the Rays (94-63) have two targets before Sunday's end of the regular season: Winning the American League East title; and finishing with the best record in the league to ensure homefield advantage in the second round.

The Rays are one-half game ahead of the Yankees in the division race, and with the tiebreaker in their favor (magic number: 4). And they are two games ahead of the Twins for the best record (magic number: 3).

"We know we're not done yet,'' said Carlos Peña. "We've got so many things left to accomplish.''

The playoffs start Oct. 6, but the Rays won't know whom they'll play in the best-of-five division series until the AL East race is decided.

The division champ is most likely to face Texas, and have homefield advantage, while the wild card appears headed to Minnesota to open against the Twins.

"Everyone knows how well we play at home," Price said. "I want to open here; if I'm going to throw the first game, there is where I want to throw."

First, they were going to celebrate, especially after failing to clinch Sunday and Monday. "I think we were scoreboard watching a little too much and weren't really focused on our games,'' pitcher James Shields said. "Today we just said … 'Let's go out there and win it ourselves.' ''

Having pulled their jerseys out as soon as the game ended, they pulled on special light-blue playoff clinching T-shirts, with accents in the BRaysers plaid.

They had 30 cases of Domaine Ste. Michelle, plus 12 bottles of Dom Perignon for the coaches and Maddon, and 200 cases of beer on ice, and it didn't appear to be enough as they got both wet and wild. The clubhouse — with an extra layer of carpet in place and Rays-logoed plastic draping on the walls — was drenched for the first of what they hope to be five such affairs.

"We'll celebrate tonight," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "And tomorrow it's back to business."

"First thing in the morning,'' executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.

They were cheered on by a roaring crowd of 17,891, some 5,000 larger than Monday but still the smallest for a home clincher since 1984, when the Padres had 15,766.

The Rays, though, had reason to celebrate, and one is just the simple math that making the playoffs means they finished ahead of at least one of the financial behemoths in their division, the Yankees or Red Sox.

"When you can be at least one of the top two teams in this division, it's incredibly meaningful," Friedman said. "It's something that's extremely difficult to do. It's a very special accomplishment for all of us."

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

Tampa Bay Rays return to playoffs with win over Baltimore Orioles 09/29/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 29, 2010 9:37am]

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