ALDS, Game One: Texas 5, Tampa Bay 1.

It will go down, no matter what
happens from here on out, as one of the most memorable, energizing,
important games in Texas Rangers history, and in two ways it played out
like I thought (hoped?) it might:

1. From Wednesday morning’s report: “[T]hat
[August 16] game pitted
Cliff Lee against David
Price, and offers something possibly instructive as the two get set to
tee it up again in a few hours.  Tampa Bay scored more runs, and had the
same
number of hits as the Rangers.  But through six innings, even though the
Rays
held a 2-0 lead at that point, Price had thrown 102 pitches, an average
of 17 per inning.  Lee had thrown just 66 (11 per inning). . . . [T]he
key to the Rays’ post-season fortunes, and
certainly to Game One, is David Price, and to wear him out the way Texas
did on August 16 seems like a very good idea to try and gameplan again.
. . . [I]f [the Rangers] can take as patient an approach this
afternoon — despite the energy of the day — I like our chances.
”  

2. I tweeted this an hour
before gametime, while watching batting practice: “Got a hunch today.
 Frenchy.

Elvis Andrus grounded out to third to start
the game, but it was an outstanding eight-pitch at-bat (six strikes)
that signaled what was to come.  Through four innings, Price was
pounding the zone, firing 51 strikes and only 16 balls, but the sum
total — 67 pitches, or nearly 17 per inning — was exactly the kind of
workload Texas needed to impose on the superstar lefthander.  

Price didn’t walk a batter, but
Texas managed to spoil a ton of fastballs, and punished two 3-0
offerings, one that Nelson Cruz put on top of the restaurant in
straightaway center field to push the Rangers’ lead to 3-0, and another
that Vladimir Guerrero doubled over center fielder B.J. Upton’s head to
score Josh Hamilton and give Texas a 5-0 cushion.  

But dial back, and there was
Francoeur, who attacked a first-pitch fastball from Price in the top of
the second, blasting it off the center field fence for a double that
opened the game’s scoring.

This was no Juan Gonzalez solo outburst of
offense.  There were 10 hits from seven hitters, including three
contributed by Bengie Molina, who homered and singled twice.  There was
no single star of the game offensively.

The star, of course, was Lee,
who escaped a troublesome first (in which he matched Price’s 24-pitch
output), stranding three runners, and cruised for the most part after
that, fanning 10 (six looking) without issuing a walk over seven
innings.  He threw a first-pitch strike to 21 of 27 Rays he faced,
and went 2-0 on just one batter all day.

There have been seven
post-season pitching performances of at least 10 strikeouts and no walks
in baseball history.  

Lee has the last three.

Yes, Tampa Bay barreled a good
half dozen shots that were right at Texas outfielders — don’t
necessarily write that off as purely bad Rays luck, as Gary Pettis had
Cruz, Hamilton, and Francoeur positioned well — and Lee and Price had
nearly identical lines in terms of innings pitched, pitches thrown,
strikes thrown, absence of walks, and strikeouts.  But the Rangers had
nine hits off Price to Tampa Bay’s five off Lee, and scored in four of
the seven innings Price took the hill.  Price had control but not
command; Lee had both.  

And with it, Lee gave Texas its first win in
Tampa Bay this year, and erased his own winlessness against the Rays in
2010.

He’s now 5-0, 1.52 in the post-season for his
career.  In five of six starts he’s held a playoff offense to one earned
run, or none.  His 0.72 ERA in three Game One starts is the lowest in
history among the 54 pitchers who have at least three starts in the
first game of a playoff series.

It was an uncharacteristic effort for Price,
who only two other times all season had allowed as many as five runs,
while it was exceedingly consistent with what Lee had done in the
playoffs in 2009, with what he had done for the most part since joining
Texas three months ago, and with the Game One vision the Rangers had
when they traded for him.  

Can’t we agree that even if Justin Smoak goes
on to have a Hall of Fame career, it’s OK?  Lee was brought here to
pitch that game, and he did his job really, really well.

Man, I don’t know exactly how
I’m supposed to feel.  Years of dashed Ranger hopes have me conditioned
not to get too excited, I guess, a defense mechanism of sorts to guard
against the mirage factor, but damn, in a three-hour period this team
matched what it had accomplished in its first 38 years, winning a single
playoff game.  There were a few similarities to Texas 6, New York 2 on
October 1, 1996, but some key differences as well, including having a
guy on the mound who pitched not the game of his life (like John Burkett
might have), but the game we’ve come to expect from him.

After Lee made the necessary
adjustments once he got through the first inning, and when Guerrero’s
fifth-inning missile to the wall in center gave Texas a 5-0 lead, it
felt absolutely insurmountable, and I’ll go ahead and admit that, for
the first time ever, I actually felt like throwing a claw down.  (Though
I didn’t.)  


When I got to Tropicana Field
(whose concourse made me think I was in Valley View Mall), I was
surprised to see how loose and confident the Rangers looked in BP.
 Ron Washington apparently addressed his players briefly in a pregame
meeting, and said “the heavy lifting is over and now’s the time to have
some fun.”  Washington’s postgame comments were remarkably low-key,
self-assured, and businesslike.  I didn’t expect this realization, but I
think Washington is a manager perfectly suited to lead a team in
October.

Much like his number one starter.

A few other observations:

Hamilton, Cruz, and David
Murphy put on tremendous batting practice displays (in Hamilton’s case
not strictly clearing fences).  Murphy looks ready to go, even though
he’ll apparently sit today’s game out despite righthander James Shields
getting the ball for the Rays.

None of Cruz’s pinball-game BP shots were as
majestic as his third-inning bomb, though.

Cruz continues to hit good
pitching.

Price threw his fastball 80 percent of the time
yesterday (higher than his 74 percent average during the season), even
though Texas (.297) led the Major Leagues in hitting the fastball in
2010, per ESPN Stats & Information.  The Rangers went 8 for 25
(.320) against the Price fastball in Game One.

Tampa Bay was
uncharacteristically conservative on the bases in the first inning.  Not
sure it would have changed much if Jason Bartlett had been sent home on
Evan Longoria’s one-out single to left (and it’s pretty clear he would
have scored), but when Lee proceeded to punch Carlos Pena and Rocco
Baldelli out, leaving Bartlett on third (and Longoria and Carl Crawford
on first and second), it took some air out of the crowd, at least.

When Andrus grounded into a fielder’s choice
in the second inning (following Francoeur’s run-scoring double and
Molina’s run-scoring single), ending up on first base as second baseman
Sean Rodriguez flipped to the shortstop Bartlett to record out number
two, I momentarily thought to myself that, if Michael Young were to
follow with a double, Andrus on first might have actually been more
likely to score than Molina would have from second.

That said, I bet someone a
quarter that Andrus was going to get picked off at some point in the
game.  He was completely confused by Price after reaching on that
fielder’s choice in the second, darting back to first two or three times
on Price deliveries to the plate.

Jorge Cantu was wearing some
sort of wrist brace on his glove hand and arm before the game.  Whether
or not that had something to do with how bad he looked against Price,
striking out three times with bat speed that didn’t have a chance, I’m
not sure he’s the club’s best option at first base, regardless of who’s
pitching.

Washington worked with Cantu and Mitch Moreland
on short-hop throws before the game, firing throws in the dirt from all
points on the infield.  It’s probably something he did with Pena when
they were in Oakland together, too, and Pena could have used the work
yesterday.  He struggled digging a couple low throws early in the game.

Washington said he didn’t
believe Neftali Feliz was nervous in the ninth, but instead was
“overhyped,” and just needed to settle down.  After Feliz threw eight
balls and four strikes to Pena and Dan Johnson to start the ninth, Mike
Maddux strode to the mound to calm his closer, and he proceeded to throw
eight more pitches — all strikes — to close things down.  Impressive.
 And maybe important, as there’s a benefit to getting that first
playoff experience out of the way for a young closer who will be counted
on in bigger spots this post-season.

I find this sort of
interesting: In save opportunities, Feliz posted a 2.18 ERA in 2010.  In
non-save opportunities (like yesterday’s), his ERA was 3.54.

Home teams that have lost Game
One of a Division Series have gone on to lose 20 of 28 series.

The last to win one of those
was the Angels, who came back in 2005 to beat the Yankees in five games.
 The Los Angeles bench coach was Rays manager Joe Maddon.

Ben Zobrist, who homered,
doubled, and barreled a lineout to right field against Lee on Wednesday,
is 5 for 10 with a sac fly and sac bunt and three RBI against Lee in
2010.  (He also rifled a Feliz fastball to right for the first out in
the ninth, with two runners on.)  If Lee does sign with New York this
winter, he and Zobrist (who is under Rays control through 2015) are
going to see each other a whole lot for years to come.

By the way, Lee allowed no hits
between Zobrist’s double to lead off the second inning and Zobrist’s
seventh-inning homer.

I guess I understand the initial thought
process behind giving Shields the ball today and Matt Garza the Game
Three assignment in Texas (not that I agreed with it), but it now makes
less sense with Tampa Bay in what has to be characterized as a must-win
situation today.  Shields, whose ERA is 7.59 since the start of
September, leads the league in earned runs allowed, hits allowed, and
home runs allowed.  According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Shields has
the seventh-highest ERA (5.18) of any pitcher to ever start Game Two of a
playoff series. 

Then again, Shields held Texas to two runs
(one earned) on four hits and a walk over seven innings at Tropicana
Field on August 18, after he’d blanked the Yankees on four hits and a
walk (11 strikeouts) over 7.1 innings earlier in the month.  Don’t get
overconfident.  Those were two of his three best starts of the season,
and they weren’t that long ago.

Guerrero is a .394/.394/.636 career hitter
against Shields, with just one strikeout in 33 at-bats.  Julio Borbon,
who gets today’s start, is 4 for 9 with only one strikeout, and Andrus
is 3 for 6 without striking out.  Michael Young is 4 for 14 (.286) but
two of those hits left the yard.  Hamilton has one hit (a home run) in
10 trips against Shields, who was his teammate on the 2001 Low A
Charleston Riverdogs.

Longoria, Pena, and Upton
against C.J. Wilson?  

A combined 16 lifetime at-bats.

Zero hits.

ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian is touting
Wilson as the best Number Two starter in the American League playoffs.

Great day for Jon Daniels and
his crew, as July pickups Lee and Francoeur and Molina each came up big,
as did winter acquisitions Guerrero and Darren Oliver.

I guess it wasn’t a huge shock
that the Rays left Dioner Navarro and Brad Hawpe off their ALDS roster,
and while I admit I wasn’t keeping up with their roster decisions very
closely, I was a little surprised that Jeremy Hellickson, Jake McGee,
and Willie Aybar didn’t make the cut.

Figures that Doc Halladay would
basically make what Lee did an afterthought not only for Phillies fans
cringing at what Lee did Wednesday afternoon, but also on MLB Network
and ESPN.  (Even the ruling on Greg Golson’s catch in the ninth inning
of Yankees-Twins is getting heavier rotation this morning nationally.)
 I know at least a couple DFW TV stations are out here.  Hope they left
Rangers-Rays enough time in the sportscast after breaking down the
latest angle on the tip Dez Bryant left the Pappas Bros. wait staff.


We’ll get to the designation
for assignment of Rich Harden (a non-story) to make room for enigmatic
righthander Ryan Tucker, claimed off waivers from Florida, another time.
 It is, however, sort of ironic that on the day that Texas wins Game
One of its first playoff series in more than a decade, the pitcher the
club signed over the winter presumably to seize that role suffered the
ultimate procedural indignity.

When Darren O’Day relieved Lee to start the
Rays eighth, and retired the strength of Tampa Bay’s order — Upton,
Crawford, and Longoria — after John Jaso had singled to start the
inning, the air-conditioned silence in the stadium was deafening.
 There’s something surprisingly invigorating about being in a hostile
sports environment whose hostility has been completely vaporized, and
getting the chance to act like you’ve been there before — even though
you haven’t.  

I got chills when Andrus stepped up to the
plate for the game’s first pitch.  But I was very content as late as the
eighth inning, with an almost uncomfortable awareness of something I
wasn’t sure I deserved.  

The next assignment falls to Wilson, who’s
picked up a thing or two from Lee in the last three months, including an
approach based on trust in your stuff (his is tougher to do anything
with than Lee’s) and an attack on the strike zone.  That’s exactly what
Texas needs from Wilson today, as he attempts to give the team a 2-0
lead in a series headed afterwards to Arlington, where memorable,
energizing, and important could await on a level this franchise has
never had within reach.


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(c)
Jamey Newberg

Twitter 
@newbergreport

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