- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2008

BALTIMORE | The Tampa Bay Rays keep reaching new milestones, and their latest feat brought them closer to perhaps the most significant accomplishment in an amazing regular season.

The Rays reduced their magic number to win the American League East to two on Tuesday night with another franchise first: a doubleheader sweep.

After James Shields pitched seven effective innings in a 5-2 victory over the Baltimore Orioles in the opener, Tampa Bay rallied to win the nightcap 7-5.

The sweep, combined with Boston’s 5-4 victory over the Cleveland Indians, left the Rays three games ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East. Any combination of Rays wins and Boston losses totaling two will give Tampa Bay its first division title.

“We can taste it,” Shields said after the first game.

In the second game, Tampa Bay trailed 5-1 before Evan Longoria homered and pinch hitter Dioner Navarro singled in two runs off Jamie Walker (1-3) in a six-run eighth inning. The Rays had five hits through the first seven innings and six in the eighth.

Jeff Neimann (1-2) pitched 2 1/3 innings and J.P. Howell got five outs for his third save.

The victory enabled the Rays (95-62) to break the record held by the 1991 Atlanta Braves for most wins by a team that owned the worst record in the majors one year earlier.

Baltimore has lost eight straight and 27 of 33. The Orioles have also dropped 11 in a row to Tampa Bay and are 3-14 overall against the Rays.

Beating out Boston is within the Rays’ grasp, but manager Joe Maddon is holding out hope that Tampa Bay can edge out the Los Angeles Angels for best record in the AL.

“They have 97. We have 94. I want them to keep that goal in mind, also,” he said between games. “Getting home-field advantage throughout would be very, very special.”

As important as that is, the Rays want to enter the playoffs feeling fresh. So Maddon did not start regulars Jason Bartlett, Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton, Navarro and Akinori Iwamura in the second game and sent Mitch Talbot to the mound to make his first major league start.

Talbot gave up three runs and six hits in 4 1/3 innings.

He was outdone by Baltimore’s Alfredo Simon, who was also making his first start in the majors. Simon, who spent most of the 2008 season pitching in the Mexican league, allowed three runs in 7 2/3 innings.

But his effort was ruined by Walker, who allowed four runs in the eighth and failed to get an out.

It was the 14th doubleheader in Tampa Bay history; the Rays had split seven and been swept six times.

In the first game, Shields (14-8) tied the club record for wins, set in 1998 by Rolando Arrojo. The right-hander gave up eight hits, struck out eight and walked one in his career-high 32nd start of the season.

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