Changing venues can change the tenor of a matchup. After a pair of slugfests between the Rays and Rangers in Texas, moving to the far more pitching-friendly enclosed confines of the Trop figured to help keep crooked numbers off the scoreboard. And for two-thirds of Monday's game, thanks to the Rangers’ Colby Lewis and the Rays’ David Price, that’s exactly what we got.
But come the seventh inning, we got a great example of how a tight game can suddenly get scary. We went from postseason baseball '60s-style to bullpen mayhem as only we today know best.
If pitching in a dome was supposed to be at all disorienting to Lewis, you can guess again. In the Japanese leagues, where Lewis spent two seasons pitching for Hiroshima, half the stadiums are domed. Over the past two seasons since joining the Rangers' rotation, Lewis had pitched in big league domes six times. He had put up a 5-1 record with a 1.35 ERA, throwing quality starts all six times and allowing just 36 baserunners in 46 2/3 IP while striking out 50. For Lewis, canned action seems like it might as well be a canned result.
With that kind of track record, it wasn’t that big a surprise Lewis gave the Rangers that kind of game yet again. He was perfect through three until, leading off the fourth, Desmond Jennings jacked a pitch down the line almost exactly to the spot where Evan Longoria's home run killed off the Red Sox last week.
Price almost did him one better, clinging to that 1-0 lead for two innings. If you had looked at Price’s career record against the Rangers (0-3, 5.67 ERA), you might have expected he’d be in trouble Monday. But that’s the thing about aggregate information -- you stand a pretty good chance of losing sight of actual performance, not to mention improvement. Price got lit up by the Rangers (six runs, four outs) the first time he pitched against them, then logged four quality starts in his next five regular-season starts, plus another (Game 5) in two tries against the Rangers in the 2010 American League Division Series.
First, it was the Rangers’ turn to bust out in the top of the seventh, as Mike Napoli’s two-run homer put Texas on the board. Price notched two outs before a Craig Gentry single. Joe Maddon decided he had seen enough, but the 'pen only made a bad situation worse. Brandon Gomes managed the remarkable feat of allowing three steals and two walks in nine pitches, and handed J.P. Howell the thankless task of facing Josh Hamilton. Hamilton cashed in with a two-run single, but the cost of hooking Price after 27 batters faced was two more runs.
Spotted that three-run lead with three innings to play, Washington predictably pulled Lewis instead of trusting the track record. He turned to lefty Darren Oliver. You can understand the script Wash was following: He has a full 'pen with lefties Oliver and Mike Gonzalez plus righties Koji Uehara and Alexi Ogando to play matchup games. And that was just the seventh inning, because the eighth inning is for Mike Adams and the ninth is for Neftali Feliz.
It’s a nice enough plan, but reality can upset any apple cart. After Oliver traded loading the bases for an out, the Rangers saw the Trop help keep Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus from tracking down a high pop foul off Sean Rodriguez’s bat. Instead the Rays squeaked a run across on an infield grounder. In the eighth, Adams proved mortal. He gave up Jennings’ second homer of the night and walked three, getting an out only on an extremely rare (for Washington) pitchout-caught stealing. Gonzalez struck out Johnny Damon, but the situation was dire: tying run in scoring position, winning run at first.
So what did Washington do? He broke with the script. He brought in Feliz, the best pitcher he has. Last October’s complaints about Washington were focused on his seeming inability to adapt and use Feliz before the ninth; it was as if a decade of watching Mariano Rivera come in early during Octobers past had passed him by. But not Monday, not in Game 3, not in this eighth inning, not now. Two outs, two on, Feliz in, game over.
Not really -- the Rays got a man on in the ninth, after all. But with Feliz in, Washington had shown some situational awareness that October baseball is different. It took Beltre starting a nifty 5-4-3 double play to close the action, but with their best men on the field and a one-run lead to hold, the Rangers got it done. If this represents a lesson learned from postseasons past for Washington, it’s a good omen for the Rangers, not just in the ALDS, but beyond if they advance.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.