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Rangers' Lee proves worth beating Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.
Sometimes, Game 1 is a tease. It deceives, like a head fake on the basketball court. We overanalyze nine innings and wind up looking foolish.
My pre-series prediction remains unchanged: Texas in four.
Oh, you will hear about a controversial call in the first inning. The Rays loaded the bases with one out. Cliff Lee, acquired for this start, looked vulnerable. He missed, high and tight, with his 2-1 pitch to Carlos Pena. For a moment, it looked like Pena had moved ahead, 3-1.
But wait. Pena told Tim Welke, the home plate umpire, that the pitch hit his hand. Welke disagreed, apparently reasoning that if the ball nicked anything, it must have been the bat. So, he called a foul tip. Pena protested. Rays manager Joe Maddon did, too.
Pena reiterated to reporters after the game that the ball grazed his right hand. Fine. But he didn’t convince Welke. The count was 2-2.
“If I wouldn’t have said anything,” Pena acknowledged, “he would have called it a straight ball, a 3-1 count.”
Had Welke awarded Pena first base, Tampa Bay would have scored the game’s first run. Maybe the Rangers, with so many players in their first postseason, would have clammed up. Maybe the Rays, urged on by a sellout crowd at Tropicana Field, would have blitzed Lee for a three-run inning.
You could look at it that way. I don’t.
The at-bat lasted three more pitches, which meant Pena had three more chances to hit a sacrifice fly. Instead, he struck out looking on a pitch that was absolutely in the strike zone. That wasn’t Welke’s fault.
Rocco Baldelli followed. He struck out on three pitches. That wasn’t Welke’s fault, either.
The Rays’ season is in peril, for reasons that have nothing to do with umpiring. Pena and Baldelli combined to go 0 for 6 on Wednesday, with five strikeouts and seven runners left on base. The sad part: No one could say it was a big surprise.
Yes, Lee had a lot to do with that. Wednesday marked the third 10-strikeout, no-walk performance of his postseason career. There were only four such games in postseason history before Lee came along, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
But remember, too, that Tampa Bay led the American League in strikeouts during the regular season. Pena had 158. He hit below .200.
Baldelli, meanwhile, arrived at spring training as a special instructor. He eventually recovered from a shoulder injury and drove home five runs in 10 games. That was enough to start as the designated hitter in Game 1.
I’m not a big fan of position-by-position, one-by-one comparisons in baseball. This isn’t the Ryder Cup. But look at the Game 1 lineups from the No. 5 hitter on down.
On Wednesday, the Rays had to hope that B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford could cause havoc ahead of Evan Longoria. There are two problems with that approach: 1) Upton and Crawford combined to reach base once; 2) Longoria, the cleanup man, is just coming back from a left quadriceps strain.
Tampa Bay has scored 17 runs in its past nine games. The search for offense has become so desperate that Maddon used Jason Bartlett in the leadoff spot. The shortstop hadn’t hit there since May 29.
“I saw the lineup maybe an hour before the game,” Bartlett said. “I was surprised.”
The Rangers, meanwhile, can start a rally at any time. They proved that on Wednesday, when Francoeur (double) and Molina (home run) contributed big RBIs.
“It’s been a strength of ours all season long — the depth in our order,” Texas third baseman Michael Young said. “We have guys who can have big at-bats at any point, one through nine. That’s been a big, big part of our team.”
Maddon pointed out on Wednesday that some of Shields’ peripheral numbers are good, but the fact remains that he has a 7.59 ERA since Sept. 1. And while Wilson struggled at times down the stretch, he often possesses better pure stuff than Lee.
Thanks to Professor Lee’s performance on Wednesday, Wilson absorbed a new lesson on how to carve up the Rays.
“They’re two totally different pitchers,” Texas star Josh Hamilton said of his teammates. “It’s going to be tough for (the Rays). Hopefully, they don’t adjust.”
If they do, I will be impressed — and surprised. Right now, Texas is the superior team.
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