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10/01/08 1:08 AM ET

Rays built for postseason success

East champs have rare blend of pitching, defense, hitting

ST. PETERSBURG -- First they clinched a playoff spot, then they clinched the American League East. Now the Rays are headed to Game 1 of the American League Division Series to play the White Sox on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. ET on TBS, much to the surprise of many.

Don't count the Rays among the surprised.

"We're here," veteran Cliff Floyd said. "Nobody wants to play us in the playoffs. I'll tell you what, Anaheim, nobody wants to play us."

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And for good reason. The Rays are built for the playoffs.

Specifically, they have starting pitching and an effective bullpen complemented by solid defense and timely hitting, which should go a long way toward helping them try to win their five-game series against the White Sox, a team they went 6-4 against in the regular season.

The Rays' top three starters -- James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza -- all have above-average stuff and all are capable of going deep into the game, though Kazmir's control problems and high pitch counts have inhibited him.

In the bullpen, J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour are critical swing men who can come in to put out a fire and they are capable of going an extra inning.

Balfour is "kind of inventing a role: the closer in the middle of the game," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Whereas the game could get out of hand at that point, and you could get in a deficit, and I don't know how many times he's kept that from happening. J.P. has done the same thing. They've both done a wonderful job of permitting us to maintain a lead or a slight deficit to come back. Once again, invaluable, that's an understatement."

If there is a vulnerable spot heading into the playoffs, it is the team's closer. Troy Percival anchored that role in the first half, but he struggled in the second half after being hampered by injuries. Despite his veteran presence, Percival's status for the playoffs remains in question, due primarily to his health.

The Rays will likely have a closer-by-committee setup for the playoffs that includes Dan Wheeler, perhaps Percival, along with Balfour and maybe even Howell, depending on the matchups.

The Rays' defense is outstanding, beginning with the infield of Evan Longoria at third, Jason Bartlett at shortstop, Akinori Iwamura at second, Carlos Pena at first and Dioner Navarro at catcher. Maddon recently noted that every member of the group should be considered for a Gold Glove.

In the outfield, B.J. Upton is a five-tool impact player. His power numbers have been down this season, but he is the kind of player who has the potential to grow wings and fly in the playoffs. Add to Upton the possibility of Carl Crawford returning, and the offense, as well as the defense, improves considerably.

Throughout the season, the Rays have counted on a deep cast of characters to win the game on any given night. In essence, the team has balance.

"It's amazing," Percival said. "I've never been on a team where so many different guys got the job done."

Those unfamiliar with the Rays should not equate balance with a lack of talent, for this is an extremely talented group.

Harped on with considerable regularity is the team's obvious lack of postseason experience, and playing well in the postseason is something that can't be quantified. But throughout the season, the Rays played in pressure-packed situations and came through time and again. Twice they swept the Red Sox; they swept the Angels and the Cubs; and they went to Fenway Park and won when they had to, which all adds up to a team that can handle the heat.

"When you watch TV, ESPN or whatever, there's always some kind of comment like, 'They're done now,'" Wheeler said. "We don't listen to any of that stuff. We don't believe that."

The Rays have confidence and talent, traits that could carry them a long way in their first postseason. After being bullied by the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox for years, the runts of the division finally started swinging back in 2008. And the results have been astounding.

"We always knew we had a lot of talent in this clubhouse," Shields said. "Somewhere along the way, we just learned how to win."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.