ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Securing the second playoff berth in franchise history is just a start for the Tampa Bay Rays.
The AL East title is still on the line, and so is the best record in the league. Both could be critical to getting back to the World Series.
"Everybody knows how well we play at home, so we want to open up here, that's for sure," 19-game winner David Price said after pitching eight strong innings in Tuesday night's 5-0 clincher over the Baltimore Orioles. "If I throw that first game, this is where I want to throw it."
The Rays, who made an improbable run to the World Series two years ago with Price coming out of the bullpen to close out their pennant-clinching win over Boston, retained a half-game lead over the New York Yankees in the division.
Meanwhile, the Yankees also clinched a playoff spot with a 6-1 victory over Toronto.
"It's different this year. I'm already looking forward to the next goal, and that's a good thing. It gets to the point where you expect to be in the playoffs on an annual basis," Rays manager Joe Maddon said amid the celebration.
"The first time we talked about the magical moment, and I'm not saying it isn't still magical, but it's a little more pragmatic in a sense the second time through. I'm exalted in that moment, but immediately I'm already thinking about what happens next."
The magic number to clinch their second AL East crown in three years is any combination of four Rays wins and Yankees losses. Tampa Bay owns the tiebreaker after winning the season series between the clubs 10-8.
Winning the division would mean starting the playoffs at home. Finishing with the AL's top record, which the Rays currently hold, would mean homefield advantage in the AL championship series as well.
"This is a tough division, so whenever you can get to the playoffs you know you earned it," All-Star Carl Crawford said.
"Tonight, enjoy this accomplishment," Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "Tomorrow, we'll get back to work."
Price scattered six hits over eight innings and allowed only one runner past second base. The young left-hander struck out eight and walked none after agonizing much of the day over a critical comment he posted Monday night on Twitter, blasting the low attendance — 12,446 — for a potential clinching game Tampa Bay lost to Baltimore.
"That was a nightmare. I knew if I didn't throw well, I was going to be done" with the fans, Price said.
"All day. Everything that led up to it was terrible," Price added. "We want more fans here, obviously. We love our fans that come, that's not what I was saying last night."
Tuesday's crowd was announced as 17,891 — still about 5,000 below the Rays' season average — but Price expressed his appreciation during an on-field interview, repeatedly saying: "Thank you, Thank you," and waving his hat to the cheering fans.
The celebration began with the players slipping on "Playoff" T-shirts and heading into the clubhouse before returning to the field, where they sprayed fans, team employees, and even police officers, with champagne.
Price wasn't the only Rays All-Star who took some heat after speaking out about low attendance on Monday night.
While the pitcher weighed in on Twitter, calling the turnout "embarrassing," third baseman Evan Longoria called it "disheartening" and went into much greater detail.
"That was obviously something that I had thought about for a long time, and coming into today I really didn't want to talk about it, again," Longoria said.
"Obviously, everybody has their own opinion. But the one thing I do want to say is, for the fans that have been coming out this year, we're happy that they have been here, and that's the one thing just moving forward from all this and not looking back, we need to say thank you to the fans that have been here."
Team president Matt Silverman announced before the game that the Rays will make available 20,000 free tickets for Wednesday night's regular-season home finale against the Orioles, a decision the executive said probably wouldn't have been made if the players had not spoken out.
Longoria said he had nothing to do with the giveaway.
"I came in today not knowing anything about it. It was brought up to me and I think it's great," Longoria said. "The more people we can get in this building the better we play as a team. That's just not me saying that. Anyway they can get in it doesn't matter to me."