ST. PETERSBURG-The doors to the home clubhouse opened at noon Thursday at Tropicana Field and nearly 100 media members came walking into the dressing area. Rays reserve outfielder Rocco Baldelli stood in front of his locker in one of the far corners of the room and smiled. “We never get a crowd like this in here, even on Opening Day,” said Baldelli, who has been with the Rays since they selected him in the first round of the 2000 draft, three years before making his major league debut. “I’m sure having this much media around might get old to the Yankees or Red Sox, but it doesn’t bother us. It’s actually kind of neat. I think we’ve got to take it as a compliment that we’re kind of a big story.”

After spending their entire existence as a punch line for David Lettermen’s Top 10 lists, the Rays find themselves in the American League Championship Series following a 97-win regular season and a victory over the White Sox in the American League Division Series. The Rays will face the defending World Series champion Red Sox tonight as James Shields pitches against Daisuke Matsuzaka in Game One. Yes, these same Rays who finished last in the AL East in nine of their first 10 years of existence and in next-to-last the other year. The same Rays who never won more than 70 games in a season, turning the 90-loss season into an art form. “In a way, it’s really unbelievable to think we’re here,” said outfielder Jonny Gomes, who has spent his entire six-year career with the Rays. “In another way, though, it’s not. I know we’ve been the surprise team in baseball in most people’s eyes, and that’s understandable because we’ve never won anything before. Heck, we haven’t even had a good team before this season. But it’s really not a surprise to us. We felt our time was coming.”

The Rays had been stockpiling young talent for a number of years, dating back to when the maligned Chuck LaMar was general manger and Cam Bonifay was running the player development and scouting departments. That continued after Stuart Sternberg bought the club from Vince Naimoli following the 2005 season, installing executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman as LaMar’s replacement, and Friedman brought former Astros GM Gary Hunsicker aboard to serve as his mentor and senior VP of baseball operations. Naimoli used to order LaMar to sign every broken-down slugger on the free-agent market one winter, and then give him the lowest payroll in the major leagues the next, but Sternberg, Friedman, and Hunsicker gave direction to a rudderless franchise. “You could see this coming for a while,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “The Rays have been a real athletic team the past couple of years, and the potential was there for them to have a really good team. I don’t know if anyone could have predicted they would get this good in one season, but you knew they were going to get a lot better at some point.”

This season, it has all come together, and the Rays are one of only four major league teams still standing just a year after finishing 66-96 and 30 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East. The key to the Rays’ success this season has been that their talent has begun to mature due in part to a change in attitude. “There was a different feeling when we got to spring training this year,” said center fielder B.J. Upton, who debuted with the Rays in 2004. “There wasn’t that hopeless-type feeling that we were going to finish in last place again.”

Rays manager Joe Maddon set the tone on the first day of full-squad workouts in spring training when he passed out T-shirts that read, “9=8”. Ostensibly, the meaning was that if nine guys played hard every day, then the Rays would be one of the eight teams playing in the postseason. But there was also a deeper meaning: Maddon thought the Rays could win nine more games with better hitting, nine more games with better pitching, and nine more games with better defense. Add it up and Maddon was saying he felt the Rays could win 93 games this season, even more optimistic than BP’s PECOTA forecast of an 88-win year, which raised many eyebrows.

Maddon admitted that his original thought last winter was to have the Rays shoot for 82 wins; a winning season. Maddon, however, is a believer of noted sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, who has long written that goals should always be set high in the athletic arena. “I don’t think it’s really fair to just shoot for a winning season, because you’re short-changing yourself,” Maddon said. “If you set your goal at 82 wins and you win something like 75-78 games, then you would consider it a failure. If you set your goal at 93 wins, though, and you can still win 85-88 games, then you can go home for the winter feeling good and feeling you had a pretty darn good year. I’m sure some of our guys rolled their eyes when they got those T-shirts. Yet, I also think most of them bought into it. I think they knew what was going on here and that they knew we were a lot closer to being good than our record had indicated.”

The Rays have been very good this season. They tied the Cubs for the second-most victories in the major leagues, three less than the 100-win Angels, and won the AL East by taking down both the Red Sox and Yankees and ending those franchises’ 10-year stranglehold on the division title. “Regardless of what happens from here on out, winning the American League East will go down as a huge accomplishment for us,” Rays reliever Dan Wheeler said. “I remember a few years back when the popular thing for people around here was that we should ask Major League Baseball to move us out of the division because we would never be able to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox. Well, when you beat those two teams, you show you can compete with anyone. That’s why we had so much confidence coming into the postseason. When you are the champions of our division, you like your chances against anybody.”

What has made the Rays’ rise to prominence most interesting is they have done it without any great individual performances. “We have a saying here that everybody drives the bus,” Maddon said. “It’s really true. We have gotten contributions from everybody up and down the roster, and that has created a situation where everyone has had a chance to take ownership in this thing and believe in what we’re doing.” No one finished in the top 10 in the AL in EqA, or the top 25 in VORP. Shields was 10th in SNLVAR (5.4), while left-hander J.P. Howell was fifth in WXRL with a 4.64 mark and Grant Balfour was 10th with a 3.43; none will likely garner a Cy Young vote. However, the Rays were first in the major leagues in defensive efficiency (.710), and third in runs allowed per game (4.1), while ranking 13th in runs scored per game (4.8).

Pitching and defense, the saying goes, are what win championships and Francona says that is what makes the difference in this edition of the Rays. “They were always capable of scoring runs, but you always felt you could score a lot of runs against them, too, especially if you got to their bullpen. Now, their starting pitchers take them deep into games a lot of times and their bullpen is outstanding. They are as good defensively as anybody. They have above-average defenders all around the infield, and balls hit into the outfield never seem to hit the turf.”

It has certainly been a winning formula for the Rays after so many years of so many losses, including five seasons with at least 99 defeats. The Rays have played with an air of confidence all season and certainly haven’t been bothered by the post-season spotlight atmosphere as evidenced by their dispatching of the White Sox. The Rays were loose Thursday as they worked out at Tropicana Field in anticipation of their matchup with the Red Sox. “When you lose as much as we lost, you learn to turn the page. Either that or you’ll drive yourself crazy,” Gomes said. “Having that mindset works to our advantage now. We win a game, then we turn the page and get ready for tomorrow’s game. We beat the White Sox and then we turned the page and started preparing for the Red Sox. We haven’t gotten caught up in our success.”

That isn’t to say that the Rays aren’t enjoying the fact that for the first time there is baseball being played on the Gulf Coast in October that is a bit higher profile than a Florida Instructional League game. “Every winter when it gets to December and you start working out harder and getting ready for the next season, you do it with the idea that you’re going to be in this position, that you’re going to be playing important games late in the season,” Gomes said. “Every year, though, the season would come and reality would set in. We’d be out of the race long before September. You would always wonder what it would be like to play in a pennant race, play in the postseason. For so long, it seemed so far away for us, but now it’s finally happened, and it’s been a whole lot of fun so far.”

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For all those that said it wasn\'t really important who won the AL East ... Wheeler\'s comments say it all ... The Rays know they can beat the Red Sox and the Red Sox know they can be beaten. \"Well, when you beat those two teams, you show you can compete with anyone. That\'s why we had so much confidence coming into the postseason. When you are the champions of our division, you like your chances against anybody.\"