After watching the Texas Rangers get shut down in the first game of the series by Matt Moore, you’d be forgiven if you thought a statement would be made in the second match. The question was whether it would be the Tampa Bay Rays or the Rangers making it.
Either James Shields was going to add an "amen" to Moore’s dominant first game -- and make this series about how the Rays’ young, talented staff made them the team nobody wanted to face -- or the Rangers were going show that they had one of the league’s best offenses during the regular season.
That’s the problem if you played the expectations game. The Rangers reminded everyone that the Rays aren’t the only team armed with young pitching talent; as Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando held Tampa Bay to three runs through six innings. Holland wasn’t dominant, but he dodged a big bullet early in the first by getting out of a bases-loaded situation with a lone run scored. He’d allow a two-run homer to Matt Joyce in the top of the fourth.
In contrast, “Big Game James” put up big numbers ... but not the good kind. Maybe some nicknames get handed out a little too quickly, but after getting lit up by the Rangers a second time in two October meetings, Shields’ moniker is in danger of becoming an oxymoron. The Rangers delivered in the fourth by planting a five-spot on the scoreboard. Shields’ problems with control gave them the opportunity. He hit Elvis Andrus to lead off the inning and, two singles later, hit Adrian Beltre to score the Rangers’ first run of the series. Shields left something out over the plate on Mike Napoli’s game-tying single, then missed the plate again on a strikeout/wild pitch play against David Murphy that plated an alert Beltre from third. This was certainly a big game, but it was one without a big-game performance from Shields.
After tacking on a pair of insurance runs in the sixth, and with the Rangers up by four at home with three innings to play, you got another reminder of how you can lose the expectations game. The Rangers’ bullpen was stocked so well -- with veteran set-up men Koji Uehara, Mike Adams and Mike Gonzalez brought in to help Neftali Feliz hold the fort -- surely this was where all the moves general manager Jon Daniels made during the season would pay off.
However, the Rays provided another upset. Perhaps not quite as epic as the Game 1 massacre, but it was reminder that Texas is not that much better equipped to score runs than the Rays, especially not in this ballpark. Uehara came in for the seventh, put two men aboard, and then surrendered a three-run homer off the bat of Evan Longoria. The Rangers may have averaged 5.3 runs per game compared to the Rays’ 4.4 in 2011, but the Rangers play in the easiest place to score runs in baseball, while the Trop is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Adjust for the ballpark differences, and you have a matchup between two top-ten offenses. Good pitching might stop good hitting, but two good offenses in this park adds up to runs.
So Uehara got torched in the inning he was supposed to handle, but he was challenged by some of the Rays’ best bats. Happily for the Rangers, Adams held the eighth and Feliz came in to deliver the save in the ninth. The duo kept the final 8-6 slugfest from becoming any more exciting and the Rangers knotted up the series.
Where does this leave us as the series moves to St. Petersburg? After scoring 15 runs in two games, the Rays have silenced those who might wonder how they would do on offense. The Rangers can take some satisfaction knowing that Holland stepped up and Adams and Feliz shut the door. But with Shields’ reputation for big-game performance in tatters and Uehara smoked in the seventh, the last three games of the series figure to be every bit as much fun. As long as you check your expectations at the door.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.