The Tampa Bay Rays didn’t get to celebrate the franchise’s first division title on the field, but it didn’t diminish the excitement about their historic turnaround.
After locking up the AL East crown, the Rays try to avoid a third straight loss Saturday when they continue their four-game series against the Detroit Tigers.
Tampa Bay (96-64) has dropped the first two games of the series with Detroit (73-86), including a 6-4 loss on Friday. The Rays had chances in both games to clinch the division with a win, but they ended up capturing the title anyway after Boston lost to the New York Yankees Friday night.
Several Rays players and manager Joe Maddon remained in the clubhouse at Comerica Park to watch the Red Sox game, which ended past midnight.
“It’s one of those things where it’s something you’ve fantasized about your whole life,” Maddon said. “You can’t believe it. You have to kind of wait and sit back. It just feels fantastic right now, wonderful.”
The Rays are the first AL team in the divisional era to finish with the worst record in its league then win its division in the following year. Atlanta in 1991 and the Chicago Cubs in 2007 accomplished the feat in the NL.
Tampa Bay, which had never won more than 70 games in a season, also became the first team other than Boston and New York to win the AL East since Baltimore did it in 1997.
“Unbelievable,” first baseman Carlos Pena said. “It just feels unbelievable.”
The celebration came after a disappointing outing Friday by Tampa Bay starter Andy Sonnanstine, who gave up five runs in the first two innings, including the first of Gary Sheffield’s two home runs. Sheffield also homered in the eighth, giving him 499 for his career. He is looking to become the 25th player to reach 500 homers.
“It wasn’t something I thought about,” Sheffield said about the 500-home run milestone.
The Tigers have scored 13 runs in this series so far after scoring just six in a three-game set with the Royals prior to this one.
The Rays will hand the ball on Saturday to Matt Garza (11-9, 3.66 ERA), who is 0-2 with a 4.57 ERA in his last four starts. In three of those outings, he pitched five or fewer innings, including on Sept. 17 against Boston when the right-hander lasted 4 2-3 innings, allowing three runs and five hits - including two home runs - in a 10-3 win.
Garza was skipped in the rotation after having started his last outing on three day’s rest. He is 0-3 with a 4.84 ERA in four starts against the Tigers.
Dontrelle Willis (0-2, 10.61) counters for Detroit, making his third start since rejoining the rotation after being sent to Triple-A in June.
Willis is trying for his first with win the Tigers after being acquired from Florida in a trade in December. The Tigers gave up six prospects in the deal, which also brought them first baseman Miguel Cabrera.
Willis lasted only 2 1-3 innings against Cleveland on Sunday, allowing six runs and five hits while walking six in the 10-5 loss.
The left-hander is 2-2 with a 2.67 ERA in four starts against the Rays. He’s pitched two complete games against them.