- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 29, 2010

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. (AP) - The first-place Tampa Bay Rays gave away 20,000 tickets for Wednesday night’s game against the Baltimore Orioles, packing Tropicana Field for the team’s regular-season home finale.

Fans begin lining up outside the domed stadium several hours before gametime. The team said the allotment of free tickets was exhausted about 45 minutes before first pitch.

There were scattered empty seats when the game began, however attendance was announced as 36,973, which is the stadium’s listed capacity. That was more than twice the turnout for the first two nights of the three-game series combined.

“Interesting concept. It’s definitely fills up the place,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said following a 2-0 loss in which Tampa Bay was limited to three hits.

“The pitchers fed off the energy really well. The hitters didn’t,” Maddon said, adding that the crowd was “very much alive, very supportive … appropriately loud and there for us.”

The Rays clinched their second playoff berth in three years before 17,891 on Tuesday night. Monday night’s potential clincher drew 12,446, a number that moved stars Evan Longoria and David Price to complain about a lack of fan support.

“It was nice to see the enthusiasm, and it’s great to have them out there behind us,” said center fielder B.J. Upton, who drew chants of “B.J., B.J., B.J.” after making a nice sliding catch on Luke Scott’s line drive into the gap in the seventh inning.

It was the sixth capacity crowd of the season. The Rays sold out their home opener against Baltimore, drew a full house for weekend series against the New York Yankees July 30-Aug. 1 and also attracted 36,973 against Boston on Aug. 28.

The team averaged 23,024 for 81 regular-season dates, finishing with a total attendance of 1,864,999.

“That’s a great tuneup for what the postseason is going to be like because you know this place is going to be rockin’!” said Jeff Niemann, Wednesday’s starting pitcher.

“It gives maybe a bunch of people who haven’t had the chance to see us play come in and see us play,” Maddon said. “Maybe it’s going to lead to future Rays fans. We’ll see.”

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