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10/09/08 4:50 PM ET

Maddon's mantra has Rays believing

Summer success vs. Red Sox backs up manager's statement

ST. PETERSBURG -- From Joe Maddon's first day on the job as Rays manager, his mantra hasn't changed: "If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best."

Easier said than done, particularly when you play in the American League East, a division where payrolls normally buy rosters that can do everything on the baseball field, including dominating teams with $45 million payrolls, such as the Rays.

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Now, all of a sudden, the Rays find themselves champions of the AL East, with an AL Division Series win over the White Sox in the rearview mirror, as they drive toward Friday night's Game 1 of the AL Championship Series. And who should they be meeting but the reigning World Series champion Red Sox -- aka "the best."

Some might feel like the Rays should have been careful about what they wished for in the off chance it might come true -- which it has.

Nevertheless, the mood seemed loose inside Tampa Bay's clubhouse prior to Thursday afternoon's workout, which wasn't surprising since the Rays' clubhouse never seems to be uptight.

"'You have to beat the best to be the best' is a truism," Rays left-hander Trever Miller said. "You don't get here by being awful. You get here by being the best all year long and winning big games. So you're playing the best teams right now. The best four teams are left.

"What it feels like to me is an awesome challenge. It is the epitome of competition for me. You don't want to beat up on somebody who doesn't belong here. You want to beat somebody who challenges you at every facet of your game. That's what it takes this time of year."

Rays right fielder Gabe Gross said that having one final battle with the Red Sox is "as it should be."

"We want to be where they were," Gross said, "and we're going to have to take it away from them to get there. I've had a weird feeling over the last couple of months that it was going to come down to Boston and us somehow, some way. Now, here it is."

Maddon isn't surprised that his team will have the opportunity to beat the best.

"It just happened quicker than I thought it would happen -- that we would be in this position," Maddon said. "And just looking at us recently and how we played, for the most part this year, we've played it right -- very simple: caught the ball, pitched it well. We battled through some difficult injuries, and we were able to maintain. The formula to get to this point is all there."

While there is one last battle to fight before the World Series, the Rays won two battles against the Red Sox during the regular season. The biggest of the victories came by virtue of the Rays winning the AL East. The other battle occurred at Fenway Park on June 5, when a benches-clearing incident occurred in the second inning, when Coco Crisp charged the mound after being hit in the thigh by James Shields.

Judging from the footage of the scene that erupted on the infield that night, Tampa Bay won the battle. But looking at the ledger for suspensions, one could say the Rays ultimately lost the larger battle.

"You want to beat somebody who challenges you at every facet of your game."
-- Rays left-hander Trever Miller

Suspensions handed down from the incident included Shields (six games), Edwin Jackson (five), Jonny Gomes (five), Carl Crawford (four) and Akinori Iwamura (three) for the Rays. Crisp (seven, reduced to five), Jon Lester (five) and Sean Casey (three) missed time for the Red Sox.

The threat of future incidents seemed to follow, but the bad blood now seems to be a thing of the past for both teams. The last time the Rays were at Fenway Park, most of the participants in the fracas had a chance to talk about the altercation and even managed to joke about it among themselves.

Shields, who threw a wild haymaker during the fracas that just missed Crisp's jaw, talked to Crisp in the Fenway Park gym during the Rays' last visit to Boston.

"He said, 'I can't believe you missed,'" said Shields with a chuckle. "But that's all over with now."

Rays vs. Red Sox in 2008
4/25TB, 5-4 (11)DohmannTimlinTropicana Field
4/26TB, 2-1DohmannBuchholzTropicana Field
4/27 TB, 3-0ShieldsBeckettTropicana Field
5/2BOS, 7-3BuchholzJacksonFenway Park
5/3BOS, 12-4BeckettShieldsFenway Park
5/4BOS, 7-3LesterKazmirFenway Park
6/3BOS, 7-4MastersonGarzaFenway Park
6/4BOS, 5-1BeckettJacksonFenway Park
6/5BOS, 7-1LesterShieldsFenway Park
6/30TB, 5-4ShieldsMastersonTropicana Field
7/1TB, 3-1GarzaWakefieldTropicana Field
7/2TB, 7-6GloverHansenTropicana Field
9/8BOS, 3-0LesterJacksonFenway Park
9/9TB, 5-4WheelerPapelbonFenway Park
9/10TB, 4-2 (14)MillerTimlinFenway Park
9/15BOS, 13-5MatsuzakaKazmirTropicana Field
9/16TB, 2-1WheelerMasterson Tropicana Field
9/17TB, 10-3BalfourWakefieldTropicana Field

Miller said he doesn't expect anything to carry over from the summer to the ALCS.

"I wouldn't think so -- I think that's water under the bridge," Miller said. "Even the guys who were involved talked to each other last time we were in Boston. Things were done in the heat of the battle in the middle of the season. The stage is too big [in the playoffs]. The games are too important to lose anybody because of your own ego or because you get your feelings hurt."

David Ortiz concurred that the books are closed on the June 5 incident.

"There's no bad blood," Ortiz said. "This is not the WWF. This is a baseball game. Sometimes, you've got things happening in the game. You stay on the field. It's not like you're go into the parking lot and wait for somebody to [beat him up]."

Tempers seem to have chilled since the middle of the regular season, but there is always the possibility that something else could happen.

"I can't say it won't [get nasty]," reliever Grant Balfour said. "You can never say nothing's going to happen. You never know what's going to happen, but nothing is going to come from what happened then. Now, if something else starts up, I can't say. You just have to wait and see."

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