Music blared, champagne flowed and a half-empty stadium rocked.
The Tampa Bay Rays are back in the playoffs, and their complaints about a lack of fan support have been put on hold.
The AL East title is still within reach. So is another trip to the World Series.
”We hit a couple of rough patches along the way, but we found a way,” B.J. Upton said after the Rays clinched their second postseason spot in three years with a 5-0 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night.
With 19-game winner David Price delivering another impressive pitching performance on a day he described as a ”nightmare,” the Rays also got solo home runs from Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena to set the stage for a wild party.
Price (19-6) scattered six hits over eight innings and allowed only one runner past second base. The 25-year-old left-hander struck out eight and walked none in what likely will be his final start of the regular season.
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 AL East.
The Yankees clinched a playoff spot Tuesday night with a 6-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays.
”I never had any doubt that this was a playoff team,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. ”I want it to be a World Series champ.”
Price agonized much of the day over a critical comment he posted the previous night on Twitter, blasting the low attendance – 12,446 – for a potential clincher that Tampa Bay lost to Baltimore on Monday night.
”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 – about 5,000 below the Rays’ season average – but Price expressed his appreciation during on 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 about low attendance.
Any fans who purchased tickets in sections where free ones are located may exchange them for a lower box seat.
”This is about getting more energy into Tropicana Field, getting this place packed, and for the players to thrive off of that emotion,” Silverman said. ”We saw it in the past. We’ve seen it this year, and we will see it in the postseason.”
Price, who this season became the youngest pitcher to start an All-Star game since Dwight Gooden in 1988, didn’t allow a baserunner past second base until the seventh inning. He struck out Nick Markakis to finish a one-two-three eighth, and Rafael Soriano worked a perfect ninth in a non-save situation.
Upton’s second-inning RBI single off Brad Bergensen (8-11) gave Price all the offensive support he would need. Dan Johnson had a run-scoring double in the third, and Pena’s 28th homer made it 3-0 in the fourth.
Pena entered Tuesday batting .198, lowest among all major league qualifiers, and he hadn’t homered since going deep against the Yankees’ Ivan Nova on Sept. 14. Crawford hit his 17th homer after Zobrist hit a sacrifice fly earlier in the fifth.
Bergensen allowed five runs and six hits over five innings.
Notes: Longoria, out of the lineup for the fifth consecutive game, remains day to day with strained left quadriceps. … Orioles 2B Brian Roberts was a late scratch because he’s wasn’t feeling well. He was replaced by Julio Lugo. … Baltimore manager Buck Showalter, team president Andy MacPhail and major league scout Bruce Kison were among a group that looked at the renovations taking place at the Orioles’ spring training complex in nearby Sarasota. Showalter called the changes ”impressive.”