It is a moment 11 years in the making, but it was still completely unexpected for the Tampa Bay Rays heading into the season.
The Rays have their first chance to clinch their first division title on Thursday, when they begin a season-ending four-game series with the last-place Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.
It has been an unprecedented season for the Rays (96-62), who have already clinched a playoff berth and lead Boston by three games with four remaining. A win or one loss by the Red Sox would give the AL East to Tampa Bay, which had never won more than 70 games in its first 10 years of existence, and had been a cumulative 327 games under .500 heading into 2008.
Tampa Bay put itself in a position to clinch with an 11-6 victory over Baltimore on Wednesday, but then had celebration plans delayed - including 200 bottles of champagne in the locker room - for at least one day and another city as Boston defeated Cleveland.
“We weren’t really talking about it, but you could definitely tell the guys were looking at the scoreboard and trying to see what was going on,” Rays center fielder B.J. Upton said. “It didn’t happen tonight, but the only thing we can do is go out and try and win a ballgame tomorrow.”
Scott Kazmir (12-7, 3.36 ERA) is coming off a solid outing as he tries to deliver a division title for the Rays. The left-hander scattered five hits and walked one in six shutout innings of a 7-2 victory over Minnesota on Saturday, when the Rays clinched their first playoff spot in team history.
“I knew we had something here. I knew we had the depth. I knew we had the pitching,” Kazmir insisted while celebrating after that start. “I knew we had everything. We just had to put it together, and we did.”
Kazmir struggled with control in his lone start versus Detroit this season, walking six and allowing two runs before being lifted after throwing 110 pitches in just 4 2-3 innings. He did not receive a decision in Tampa Bay’s 5-2 win in that game, and Kazmir is 2-3 lifetime in seven starts against the Tigers - with both victories at Comerica Park.
Detroit (71-86), which had high expectations heading into 2008, are spending the final four games of the season trying to climb out of the AL Central cellar. The Tigers have lost six straight and 12 of 13 overall after being swept in a three-game series by Kansas City, capped with a 10-4 defeat Wednesday.
The Tigers’ offense has failed to do much during the current skid, getting outscored 43-19. The Tigers have batted .251 during their last 13 games - .236 when their 17-4 victory over Texas on Sept. 17 is not included.
“We are just in an offensive funk right now,” manager Jim Leyland said. “We have no excuses - the guys are out there trying every night. We just can’t get anything going.”
Armando Galarraga (12-6, 3.58), one of the few bright spots for the Tigers, will oppose Kazmir. The rookie right-hander, though, is 0-2 with a 5.40 ERA in his last five starts and did not have a decision Friday at Cleveland, where he gave up three runs and four hits in 7 2-3 innings in Detroit’s 6-5 loss.
Galarraga pitched well in his lone start against Tampa Bay - conceding just one run in seven innings on Aug. 3 of a 6-5, 10-inning loss.