ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Southern California kid who boasts a Texas-sized tool box of pitches used them all -- or surely at least most of them -- in Thursday’s pivotal Game 2, as the ultra-confident C.J. Wilson kept the Tampa Bay Rays off-kilter and just maybe took them out of this surprising American League Division Series.
Wilson, a career reliever who literally had to sell himself to the front office as a starter, tossed a two-hit shutout over 6 1/3 innings. He struck out seven and walked just two. The lefty had the sellout crowd at Tropicana Field booing Tampa Bay’s befuddled hitters as the Rangers rolled to a monumental 6-0 victory and a commanding 2-0 lead in this best-of-5 series.
Rays leadoff hitter Jason Bartlett sent a solid shot into right to start off the bottom of the first and get the crowd roaring. But, with some early defensive help from first baseman Mitch Moreland with a diving grab in foul territory in the first inning and consecutive second-inning gems from center fielder Josh Hamilton, Wilson was on his way to retiring 10 in a row.
After Bartlett’s single, Tampa Bay didn’t put another man on base via a crack of the bat until Willy Aybar’s seventh-inning double off the center-field wall. By then, the Rangers had put up a half-dozen runs.
“He really mixed up everything,” catcher Matt Treanor said. “I think they kind of expected that. It sounded like they were going to try and shrink the zone a little bit and make him throw strikes.”
The Rays knew Wilson led the AL in walks, so patience at the plate could finally give their speed a chance on the bases. But Wilson used all four quadrants of the plate as 65 of his 104 pitches went for strikes. He effectively mixed speeds and made some of the Rays’ best hitters look foolish. Four of his seven strikeouts were called. The biggest came against the final batter he faced in the seventh, Fort Worth product Kelly Shoppach.
With the Rays in the process of mounting their only threat against Wilson, Shoppach came to the plate with runners at second and third and no out. He worked the count full and then Shoppach, who walked in the fifth, froze on strike three.
Wilson went down and away with the pitch. Shoppach tried to induce a ball-four call by taking off and sprinting all the way to first base, but home plate umpire Jim Wolf wasn’t fooled and rung him up. Shoppach huffed back to the Rays dugout waving his hand disgustedly at Wolf.
“When I walked him, I threw the pitch almost where I wanted to," Wilson said. "If I threw the pitch right where I wanted to, it’s for sure a strikeout looking. I had that finishing sequence in my head. It’s like when you play chess, you sort of remember what moves set up other moves and I had that in the back of my head knowing, 'OK, I’m going to hit my spot this time.'"
He did and manager Ron Washington came out to get him after throwing 104 pitches -- a concoction of fastballs, curves, cutters and splitters, if not more.
“I’ve got to give him a lot of credit,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who watched the last half of the game from the clubhouse after bing tossed. “Down in the zone, in on the zone to the right-handers and also some really good change-ups. I thought he was very sharp.”
Before the series, Wilson again commented on his ability to throw multiple pitches and mix speeds depending on the twists and turns of the game and the batter he’s facing -- "real-time strategic adaptations," Wilson called it. In the sixth, after he hit Bartlett to lead off the inning, Wilson made B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford flail at off-speed pitches for consecutive strikeouts. Then he got Evan Longoria to bounce out to third. Longoria frustratingly tossed his bat aside as he trotted down the line knowing his fate.
Just how many different pitches did Rays hitters see in Game 2?
“He threw five different ones,” Treanor said.
“It’s a secret,” Treanor said. “I’ll tell you at the end of the year. Or read the book.”
Hamilton, who made two terrific, sprinting catches on back-to-back plays in the second inning, including one that required a diving stab, said he could tell at least one pitch that was working well.
“His cutter was looking pretty good today from where I was,” Hamilton said. “He was using both sides of the plate, so he just did a great job, just like Cliff [Lee] did yesterday.”
And what a one-two punch that’s turned out to be. The two lefties combined to hold the Rays to one run on seven hits with 17 strikeouts and two walks in 13 1/3 innings.
Not bad considering that Lee wasn’t on the team until a stunning July 9 trade and that the 29-year-old Wilson had to plead his case just to get the chance to become a starter, where he then went on to win a team-high 15 games.
Wilson said that during his spiel he told general manager Jon Daniels that if he had a good year, the Rangers would be in the playoffs.
“We had a few guys in the organization, C.J. first and foremost, but a few guys in the organization that could see him making the transition,” Daniels said. “They were spot-on. The credit ultimately goes to C.J. He put the work in. He’s had a helluva year.”