ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays will face the Chicago White Sox in Game 1 of the American League Division Series at 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday on TBS.

The Rays have been arguably baseball's biggest surprise, as Tampa Bay proceeded to clinch its first AL East title, outpacing the defending World Series champion Red Sox.

The Tampa Bay organization has slowly built a wealth of talented young prospects. Considerable depth in their Minor League system has allowed the Rays to withstand key injuries, as each bench player has played an integral part in the franchise's historic run. Most importantly, third-year manager Joe Maddon -- who won a World Series as a bench coach with the Angels in 2002 -- has his young team excited and believing it can win.

TEAM RECORD

Overall: 97-65
Home: 57-24
Road: 40-41
Day: 27-20
Night: 70-45
By month: March/April 15-12, May 19-10, June 16-10, July 13-12, August 21-7, September 13-14

KEY MOMENTS

The offseason trade for right-hander Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett

Executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman made a key deal on Nov. 28, 2007, sending outfielder Delmon Young and infielder Brendan Harris to the Twins in exchange for Garza and Bartlett. The 24-year-old Garza has arguably the best stuff on the Rays' staff, finishing 11-9 with a 3.70 ERA, including three complete games. Meanwhile, Bartlett has been the glue of the infield defense and is often referred to by Maddon as the team's MVP. It's no coincidence that the first-place club went 7-9 when Bartlett was on the disabled list, as he has helped shore up a historically iffy Rays middle infield.

The callup of third baseman Evan Longoria

On April 12, the Rays recalled the 22-year-old Longoria from Triple-A Durham in the wake of an injury to Opening Day third baseman Willy Aybar. Two nights later, Longoria blasted his first home run and, despite missing the month of August with a fractured right wrist, hasn't stopped the curtain calls since. Longoria's 25 homers lead all rookies, and his .545 slugging percentage is the highest by a rookie third baseman in Major League history. An AL All-Star, Longoria homered three times on Sept. 18 against the Twins, and he gives the lineup a powerful right-handed bat.

Winning at Fenway Park

The Sept. 8-10 series was arguably the biggest statement made during the Rays' season, as Tampa Bay had posted an 0-6 record going into the three-game set on Boston's home terrain. After dropping the first game, the Rays pulled out a 5-4 win on Sept. 9 courtesy of a solo homer from recent callup Dan Johnson and a double from rookie Fernando Perez. Dioner Navarro delivered the game-winning ninth-inning RBI as Tampa Bay stunned closer Jonathan Papelbon and the Fenway faithful. The Rays clinched the series -- and kept their position atop the AL East -- with the following night's 4-2 win in 14 innings.

Rays' turning point

Maddon frequently references an extra-inning win in Toronto on May 8 as the defining moment for his young club. After getting swept in the previous three-game set in Boston, the Rays -- who had squandered a three-run lead to the Blue Jays the night prior -- were on the verge of dropping their second straight road series. But a five-run 13th inning -- capped off by Navarro's grand slam -- gave Tampa Bay the win and some sorely needed momentum. In years past, the young, unproven team would have crumbled, but the Rays' grit -- as much as the outcome -- was an indicator of the season to come.

HITTING

Team Stats Avg.: .260, 13th in AL
Runs: 774, 9th in AL
HRs: 180, 4th in AL
OPS: .762, 8th in AL

Individual Leaders
(Qualifiers only)
Avg.: Navarro, .295
HRs: Carlos Pena, 31
RBI: Pena, 102
Runs: Akinori Iwamura, 91
OPS: Longoria, .874
SB: B.J. Upton, 44

The Rays' offense makes a living off timely hitting, as the club lacks a .300 hitter or feared 40-homer bat. Although Pena has swung a powerful stick in the last few weeks of the season, the team traditionally manufactures runs. Speedsters like Upton and Bartlett make Tampa Bay a threatening opponent with runners on base, but if the game shifts to a slug-fest the Rays are usually on the wrong end.

PITCHING

Team stats
Overall ERA: 3.82, 2nd in AL
Starters ERA: 3.95, 2nd in AL
Bullpen ERA: 3.49, 2nd in AL
Strikeouts: 1143, 3rd in AL
HRs allowed: 166, 9th in AL
Opponents BA: .246, 2th in AL

Individual leaders
Wins: James Shields, Edwin Jackson, 14
ERA (starter): Scott Kazmir, 3.49
ERA (reliever min. 30 appearances): Grant Balfour, 1.54
Strikeouts: Kazmir, 166
Saves: Troy Percival, 28
Holds: Dan Wheeler, 26
HRs allowed: Shields, 24
Opponents' BA: Balfour, .143

The Rays' starting five have all recorded at least 11 wins, and their consistency has kept the club afloat despite periods of offensive struggle. And as Tampa Bay gets deeper into the game, it only gets better. The club has gone from a Major League-worst 6.16 bullpen ERA in 2007 to an impressive 3.54 mark this season. The only real question is the health of closer Percival, who has been slowed by back and hamstring issues. If Percival is unable to contribute in the postseason, the Rays could have some serious ninth-inning concerns.

FIELDING

Team fielding percentage: .985, tied for 4th in AL
Errors: 90, 4th fewest in AL

Defense and starting pitching has been the Rays' recipe for success, and the club's infield is arguably the best in the Major Leagues. The concern is with the outfield. Although Upton (strained left quadriceps) returned to the field on Sept. 21, the Rays are still without the services of Carl Crawford, who has been on the disabled list since Aug. 10 with right middle finger surgery. If Upton remains at full strength, the Rays may opt to put speedy Fernando Perez in one of the corners to help cover some of Crawford's missed ground. Right field is also a question, as the Rays have gone with a platoon of Gabe Gross, Rocco Baldelli and recently Jonny Gomes, but they lack an everyday player.

RAYS VS. WHITE SOX

Game by game
April 18: White Sox 9, Rays 2
April 19: Rays 5, White Sox 9
April 20: White Sox 6, Rays 0
May 29: White Sox 5, Rays 1
May 30: Rays 2, White Sox 1
May 31: White Sox 2, Rays 0
June 1: Rays 4, White Sox 3
Aug. 22: Rays 9, White Sox 4
Aug. 23: Rays 5, White Sox 3
Aug. 24: White Sox 6, Rays 5

RAYS VS. POTENTIAL POSTSEASON TEAMS

vs. White Sox: 6-4
vs. Red Sox: 10-8
vs. Angels: 6-3
vs. Phillies: 0-0
vs. Cubs: 3-0
vs. Dodgers: 0-0
vs. Brewers: 0-0

The Rays went 12-6 in Interleague Play and have fared well against two of the Majors' top squads: the NL Central-champion Cubs and the AL West-champion Angels. The Rays have a winning record against the White Sox. The Rays are a game under .500 on the road, and the young club could struggle with particularly hostile crowds.