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Rays' rally denies Rangers' dreams
The Texas Rangers have been in business for 39 years, without winning a home playoff game. Saturday was going to be the night.
Former President George W. Bush was sitting in the front row. He used to own the team. He is the team’s most famous fan. He stood up and cheered when Ian Kinsler put the home team ahead — for good, many thought — with a towering home run in the seventh.
The Rangers were six outs from the American League Championship Series. A formality, against this lineup. The largest crowd in Rangers Ballpark history was about to celebrate.
Then something completely unexpected occurred.
The Tampa Bay Rays remembered how to rally.
The party never happened. The stands emptied early. The Rays won, 6-3, closing to within two games to one in the American League Division Series.
Now we have a series. You know what they say: Don’t assume with Texas. Or something like that.
Afterward, Rays center fielder B.J. Upton stood in the happy clubhouse. He wore a blue, slogan-bearing T-shirt that led you to believe his team knew the solution to its woes all along.
Just Hit It!
Oh sure. It was that easy.
Over the first 23 innings of this ALDS, the Rays had scored one run. And that came on Ben Zobrist’s solo homer in the seventh inning of Game 1.
That’s right: Tampa Bay played two and a half games without committing the rare and renegade act of scoring a runner with a base hit.
Finally, in the sixth inning of Game 3, it happened: Upton was batting against Rangers reliever Alexi Ogando. Upton was 0-for-10 in the series. It would be kind to say that he looked horrible at the plate. Meanwhile, Ogando throws gas. This was not a good matchup for Tampa Bay.
But on the fourth pitch of the at-bat, Upton turned around a 97-mile-per-hour fastball. It landed on the outfield grass. The Rays had a point, as their manager likes to say.
They also had some hope.
“Once we scored that one run, there was a lot of life in the dugout,” Upton said. “It carried on for the rest of the game.”
The Rays finished with 11 hits. They had eight over the first two games.
So, excuse them for exuding the confidence of Little Leaguers who just mercied All-Stars from the next town.
“It feels like (we’re) winning the series right now,” said Rays star Carl Crawford, who, for the first time in this series, lived up to his lofty reputation on both sides of the ball.
Apparently, Friday’s team meeting — called by slumping first baseman Carlos Pena — actually worked. According to outfielder Matt Joyce, Pena talked about “how far this team has come, the odds that have been against us all our lives, to make it to the major leagues, just to be here.”
More importantly, Pena hit in Game 3. He finished 2-for-3, with a tying single in the eighth and add-on homer in the ninth.
But the most important Tampa Bay at-bat came from catcher John Jaso, against Rangers closer Neftali Feliz in the eighth. The score was tied, and Feliz was pumping fastballs. Jaso took a particularly strong rip at the third one, fouling it straight back.
At that point, Feliz had thrown 29 pitches in the ALDS. And after a mound conference with catcher Bengie Molina, Feliz settled on a slider — something he had attempted only once before in the series.
Jaso muscled it into center field, and Tampa Bay was ahead to stay.
“I had a clear mind up there,” Jaso said.
Now, suddenly, there are questions about the Rangers. Their roster includes only 10 pitchers, and manager Ron Washington used all six of his relievers Saturday. Not only did Feliz take the loss, but he expended 19 pitches.
Rather than Cliff Lee on short rest, Tommy Hunter starts for the Rangers on Sunday, and he isn’t known for an ability to dominate lineups. Hunter completed six innings in only one of his last four starts. Washington may need to rely on his bullpen for a second straight game. If so, advantage Tampa Bay.
The Rays will tell you that the pressure is on the Rangers, and it’s easy to believe them. Suddenly, this series is nine innings away from a Game 5 that almost no one thought could happen.
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