ARLINGTON, Texas – The line between success and failure proved razor-thin Sunday for two young starting pitchers who made their postseason debuts in the teeth of the ALDS.
Tampa Bay right-hander Wade Davis had his team’s American-League-best 96-win season in his hands. Tommy Hunter was picked by Rangers manager Ron Washington over ace Cliff Lee on short rest to pitch the Rangers into their first AL Championship Series and avoid a do-or-die trip back to Tampa.
Neither pitcher lasted as long as he hoped despite each striking out seven. But, the long-legged, 6-foot-5 Davis made the big pitch more often to earn the win. Hunter, a stocky, 280-pounder who didn’t lose at home in the regular season, was undone by a strange fourth inning in which he struck out the side but also surrendered three doubles for two runs that gave the Rays a 3-0 lead.
With the Rangers’ big bats mostly and mysteriously in hibernation mode, three runs proved too many. Hunter’s day was done after four innings, and the Rays went on to celebrate a 5-2 Game 4 victory to tie the series.
Afterward, Hunter made no apologies for his 73-pitch outing.
“I did what I wanted to with the ball today,” Hunter said. “I put it where I wanted it and they just got a couple timely hits. That’s it.”
The Rays scored first for the first time in the series on an unearned run in the second inning. Carlos Pena launched a triple to left-center and Matt Joyce followed with a pop into shallow right field. Second baseman Ian Kinsler backpedaled as right fielder Nelson Cruz charged. Kinsler took control, but the ball drifted on him and it hit his glove and fell to the ground. Hunter recovered from that misfortune to get the next two batters and get out of the inning.
“That kind of stuff doesn’t really set people back,” Hunter said. “It’s one run in the second inning. You’re talking about seven more innings of a baseball game.”
The inning that made the difference was the last for each pitcher. Through three innings, Hunter already had four strikeouts and had allowed just three hits. To start the fourth, Evan Longoria drove Hunter’s first pitch for a double and Pena followed by slicing one into left for a double to make it 2-0.
Then Hunter got Joyce and Dan Johnson to fan, bringing up B.J. Upton. Upton, hitting just .077 coming into this one, came through as he did in Game 3, taking a 3-0 pitch to left for the third double off Hunter in the inning.
“I had pretty good stuff, real good stuff I felt. Breaking ball was good,” Hunter said. “They hit my pitch the majority of the time today, I can tell you that. There’s a couple of balls I can think of right now, Pena in the second and Longoria swinging at the first pitch. Other than that, they hit my pitch.”
And the Rangers’ didn’t hit Davis when opportunity knocked. No inning was more frustrating for Texas than the fifth with the Rays leading 5-0.
“He is one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. If you make a couple of mistakes, it can change the game,” Davis said. “At that point in the game for me it was the game. If he gets a hit or hits a homer, it is a different ballgame.”
Guerrero struck out, flailing at a slider low and out of the zone.
Each time Davis allowed a base runner he came back to get the next batter. With runners at first and second in the first, he got Guerrero to bang into a 5-4-3 double play. He retired Young on a lazy fly and Hamilton on a weak grounder in the third after a one-out Elvis Andrus double. And, after a lead-off single from Guerrero in the fourth, Davis struck out Cruz, got Kinsler to fly out and struck out David Murphy.
Finally in the sixth, the Rangers got to Wade, who was charged with two runs in five innings, but the Rays had already put up two more against Texas reliever Derek Holland. The Rays relievers made the 5-2 lead stand.
Hunter was just imperfect enough to get beat.
“He threw the ball really well. We just couldn’t get anything going offensively,” said Kinsler, who was 1-for-3 with a walk. “We had some chances, just couldn’t really get a hit to break it open and they scored more than us.”