Tampa Bay Rays
On Deck: The Postseason
DETROIT - Left to wait at least one more day before they learn which team will provide the opposition in Thursday's playoff opener, the Rays at least ended a historic regular season on a winning note. One last come-from-behind effort capped by a Ben Zobrist homer in the 11th inning gave the Rays an 8-7 triumph against the Tigers and a final record of 97-65, a year after they finished last at 66-96. Now it's on to face the Twins or the White Sox, depending on what plays out in Chicago during the next two days. With both AL Central contenders winning Sunday, Minnesota maintains the half-game lead it has held throughout the weekend. Chicago will finish its regular-season slate today at 2:05 p.m. against the Tigers at U.S. Cellular Field, making up a game rained out earlier this month. Should the White Sox lose today, the Twins would win the division. If the White Sox win, they would host the Twins on Tuesday in a one-game playoff for the final postseason spot.In the meantime, the Rays will wait. A pep rally this afternoon in St. Petersburg and workouts Tuesday and Wednesday at Tropicana Field will provide a low-intensity lead-in to the raucous atmosphere that undoubtedly will prevail Thursday in Game 1 of the Division Series. It's debatable how the contrasting tasks that await the three teams in question during the coming days might affect the series once play begins, and the Rays aren't going to spend too much time mulling over. About the only factor Manager Joe Maddon considered is the possibility of either AL Central team burning through its pitching staff just to reach the playoffs. "Theoretically, you would think that it would benefit us, but I don't really try to analyze that too deeply," Maddon said. "Until you see them on the field, you have no idea." The value of Sunday's Rays victory also was shrugged off by most. Certainly, no one objected to closing out the six-month marathon that got them to this point with a victory, but no one seemed to think it would have been a significant problem for the Rays to enter the playoffs riding a four-game losing streak, either. "I mean, it wouldn't have destroyed our confidence - we're going to go into the playoffs ready to play regardless of today's game," winning pitcher Edwin Jackson said. "But it's always good to end the season on a good note and we ended it on a win. That helps." Jackson played a key role Sunday, coughing up a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth by allowing a game-tying homer to Magglio Ordonez but benefiting from Zobrist's drive to tie James Shields for the team lead - and team single-season record - with 14 victories. But it took quite a while for the Rays to get to that point. With tuning up for the playoffs the top priority, the Rays rested some of their regulars and got those who did start out of the game after a couple of at-bats while also limiting Shields to one 10-pitch inning before he hit the showers. Seven pitchers would follow Shields, and it appeared the five runs Mitch Talbot surrendered in relief might doom the Rays. Talbot allowed a three-run homer to Curtis Granderson in the third, then walked in a pair of runs in the fourth as his final eight pitches of the game missed the strike zone. Tampa Bay trailed 5-0 at that point, but David Price, Dan Wheeler, Troy Percival and Trever Miller would keep the Rays in the game by holding the Tigers where they were through the eighth. At the same time, the Rays' offense snapped to attention after a rough start that saw Detroit's Zach Miner carry a perfect game into the fifth. Rocco Baldelli took care of that with a leadoff homer and Eric Hinske's two-run shot later in the frame put the Rays right back in it, down 5-3. They took the lead with four runs in the eighth as Jonny Gomes came off the bench to deliver the big blow. Pinch-hitting for Carl Crawford, who made a three-inning cameo in left field, Gomes tied the game with a two-run double off Freddy Dolsi. It was his first hit off a right-handed pitcher since April 23, snapping an 0-for-28 skid against righties. Zobrist later singled to right to put the Rays ahead and Hinske capped the inning by forcing in Gomes with the Rays' 25th bases-loaded walk of the season. The Rays turned to Jackson for the ninth in his first relief appearance this season, but he blew the save by allowing a Gary Sheffield single and watching Ordonez hammer a slider out to left. But Zobrist's homer off Matt Lambert leading off the 11th took care of that and sent the Rays home feeling confident as ever. Now all they have to do is wait and see who they'll be playing.
Reporter Marc Lancaster can be reached at (813) 259-7227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.