ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)—The playoffs beckoned, and just as they’ve handled other challenges this season, the Tampa Bay Rays took a leap forward.
The AL East leaders clinched the first postseason berth in franchise history Saturday, beating the Minnesota Twins 7-2 and making Scott Kazmir look like a genius for boldly proclaiming during spring training that the perennial last-place team was good enough to play in October.
“I knew we had something here. I knew we had the depth. I knew we had the pitching,” Kazmir, drenched in champagne and beer, said. “I knew we had everything. We just had to put it together, and we did.”
Carlos Pena hit a two-run double and Kazmir rebounded from the worst start of his career to pitch six scoreless innings as the Rays, who never won more than 70 games in a season before this year, wrapped up at least a wild-card spot.
Cliff Floyd and Fernando Perez capped the biggest win in the club’s 11 seasons with solo home runs. The Rays also extended their lead in the division to 2 1/2 games over Boston, which lost 6-3 at Toronto.
“It’s so special how we’ve come together. The way we’ve changed things here so dramatically is remarkable,” third-year manager Joe Maddon said. “We went from being down to being the most unified team out there.”
The players, many sporting mohawk haircuts they say is a display of how close the club is, danced around the clubhouse, spraying each other with champagne and beer. At one point, they took the party out to the field, where thousands of fans were watching the celebration on a big television screen.
The Rays wore playoff T-shirts bearing the team’s mantra: “9=8” which essentially translates to nine players playing hard for nine innings every day equals one of eight postseason berths.
Tampa Bay, 66-96 a year ago, joined the 1991 Atlanta Braves as the only teams to advance to the postseason a year after having the worst record in the majors. It’s the second AL team—and 11th overall—to go from last place to the playoffs in successive years.
“This is pure emotion—a team, an organization that has been challenged, that has been questioned, and we’ve answered all the questions,” team president Matt Silverman said. “And now, it’s time to move on and see where else we go can go.”
The first order of business is trying to win the division. The Rays have the best home record in the majors (57-23), and still have a chance to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The crowd of 36,048 that packed Tropicana Field stood for entire ninth inning, chanting “Let’s Go Rays” and clanging cowbells. The Twins delayed the celebration by scoring twice, but the party was on once third baseman Evan Longoria chased down Joe Mauer’s foul pop for the final out.
“I think every baseball player and every kid dreams of this day,” Longoria said. “It’s a reality now.”
The struggling Twins, who have lost six of seven, began the day 2 1/2 games behind the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox, who were at Kansas City on Saturday night. They trail the Red Sox by 7 1/2 in the wild-card race.
“It was pretty much their day. It’s well-deserved,” Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said. “They play the game the right way. They hustle. They have a lot of talented people on that squad.”
Tampa Bay could have clinched without winning if the White Sox and New York Yankees each lost once during the weekend.
But Maddon and his players had made it clear they preferred to take care of their own business.
“That’s been the motto all year,” Floyd said. “Take care of ourselves and you don’t have to worry about anything else.”
Pena’s double off Kevin Slowey (12-11) gave Kazmir a 2-0 lead in the third inning. The Rays added three more in the fifth on Longoria’s RBI double, Dioner Navarro’s run-scoring single and pinch-hitter Rocco Baldelli’s bases-loaded walk.
In some ways it was fitting that Kazmir (12-7) started the game that assured the first playoff berth.
At 24, he’s a two-time All-Star and already the club’s career wins leader. And more than a few people snickered when he made his bold preseason declaration about the team’s talent level.
“It couldn’t have been a better setting,” Kazmir said. “But I’ll tell you what. I couldn’t do it without the bats that we had tonight. We just show a lot of heart, every day—day in, day out.”
Boston roughed up the Rays ace during a 13-5 win over Tampa Bay last Monday, but the left-hander was a different pitcher against the Twins, allowing just five hits.
But Kazmir, who matched a career high by allowing nine runs in three-plus innings against Boston, escaped. He got some help from Morneau, who was caught off second after Delmon Young flied out to swallow center field for the first out.
The Rays lost their shutout in the ninth when Troy Percival surrendered an RBI single to Denard Span before being replaced by Trever Miller. Alexi Casilla’s run-scoring groundout made it 7-2 before Miller retired Mauer to start the celebration.
“It’s an incredible feeling. This is what you come to spring training for,” Longoria said. “We’re going to be one of eight teams in the playoffs. It’s awesome.”
Mauer’s fourth-inning single gave him a 10-game hitting streak. … The sellout was the seventh at Tropicana Field this year. Sunday’s game is also sold out, giving the Rays full houses for consecutive games for the only the second time in club history. … With 98 RBIs—51 since the All-Star break—Pena is two shy of joining Fred McGriff and Aubrey Huff as the only players to drive in 100 twice for Tampa Bay. … Rays CF B.J. Upton, out since Sept. 8 with a strained left quadriceps, pinch hit in the fourth inning and remained in the game.