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Friday, September 30, 2011
Rangers swing, miss in Game 1 of ALDS

By Jim Reeves
ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- By far the best play by anyone in a red Texas Rangers jersey Friday came when an intrepid fan on Greene's Hill made a running catch of Kelly Shoppach's second-inning home run to dead center field, then without hesitation whirled and fired it back to the infield.

Sign that man to a contract and let's see if he can hit; nobody else in a Rangers jersey could in a punishing 9-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

The majors' top pitching prospect, Tampa left-hander Matt Moore, cruelly reminded us again -- just in case anyone might have forgotten -- of baseball's No. 1 axiom: Great pitching beats great hitting every time.

Josh Hamilton
Josh Hamilton tried bunting for a hit with the Rangers down by eight runs in the sixth inning.

The team that had sliced and diced virtually everyone in its path during a 19-6 September, hitting a torrid .320 with a major league-leading 49 home runs, scratched out just two hits in seven innings against Moore, who was making only his second big league start.

This is why, when I asked Rangers manager Ron Washington two weeks ago what other team in the league might be as dangerous as his Rangers in the postseason, he answered without hesitation: "Tampa Bay."

The quality and depth of the Rays' pitching scared him, and for good reason. At that point, I doubt he had even figured the rookie Moore into the equation, either.

How futile was the Rangers' offense? This helpless: Josh Hamilton, who collected both of the Texas hits against Moore, tried to bunt his way on against the Rays' defensive shift with a runner on first and nobody out.

That's right, bunt. But instead of pushing it down the wide-open third-base line, the 2010 American League MVP tapped it right back to Moore.

Earth to Hamilton: The Rangers aren't paying you to bunt when your team is trailing by eight runs. Another time, perhaps, but not in that situation. Step up and hit the ball, preferably hard.

Washington certainly wasn't going to take shots at his star player, but he clearly had preferred that one of his best power hitters be up there swinging for the fences in that situation.

"I like his thinking," Washington said, "but right there, I'd like to see him swing the bat."

Club president Nolan Ryan was shown on TV, his hand over his mouth and a slight frown of concentration on his face. Fortunately, with one of his grandsons seated beside him, Nolan had the presence of mind not to voice what he must have been thinking.

Hamilton had been involved in an emotional pregame first-pitch ceremony with Brownwood's Jenny Stone and her 6-year-old son, Cooper, who saw his dad, Shannon Stone, tumble from the left-field wall to his death on July 7. Perhaps that's another reason why the black T-shirt Hamilton pulled on before addressing the postgame media boasted a picture of a huge lemon with the message: "Don't get bitter, get better."

"This is for all of you and appropriate for this game," Hamilton said with a grin.

Tampa Bay's Matt Moore
The Rangers couldn't figure out Rays rookie starter Matt Moore in Game 1.

And the sixth-inning bunt with his team down by eight runs?

"I was just trying to keep something going, obviously," Hamilton said. "I was trying to keep the momentum going with Michael [Young] coming up and they were giving me the bunt down the third-base line, like they always do. I just bunted the ball back to the pitcher."

Naturally, the Rays were giving him the bunt. Manager Joe Maddon will happily give up a bunt single to Hamilton in that situation rather than risk a two-run homer.

Then again, at least Hamilton did have his team's only two hits.

This wasn't a memorable game for any of the Rangers, least of all starter C.J. Wilson, who had helped put his team behind by six runs by the time the Rangers came to bat in the third inning. Johnny Damon hit a two-run homer in the second and Shoppach, a .176 hitter this season, belted his three-run shot in the third and had another two-run blast in the fifth.

For the last month, the Rangers have become accustomed to setting off the fireworks, not being singed by them.

"[Moore] threw well," said an implacable Young. "We hit into a couple of hard outs early in the game, then the shadows moved in in the middle innings and there wasn't much offense from either team."

Especially the dead-in-their-tracks Rangers.

"The way Matt was throwing today, he'd have made any offense look flat," Washington said.

The convincing victory puts the Rays in terrific shape for the remainder of the best-of-five series. They will bring ace James Shields, who led the American League with 11 complete games this season -- no, not even Detroit's Justin Verlander did that -- in Game 2 Saturday, putting them in perfect position to take the series back to Tampa with a 2-0 series lead. Under that scenario, the Rangers would have to win three straight, including both games at The Trop. Not a pleasant prospect, huh?

"As an offense," Young said, "we expect to score no matter who is on the mound."

Much of the pressure in trying to avoid that worst-case scenario falls squarely on the shoulders of the Rangers' own young left-hander, 24-year-old Derek Holland, who will oppose Shields in Game 2. The Rangers desperately need him to duplicate Moore's dominance while praying that their offense can somehow figure out a way to score against Shields.

Neither is inconceivable, by the way. The mark of these Rangers has been their resiliency and their ability to play this game one day at a time. They know how to put losses like this behind them.

"It's over. We lost. It sucks," Hamilton said. "But we play again tomorrow."

In a best-of-five series, there is no time for a pity party. They have to shake this off. The Rangers need a win Saturday, however they have to scratch it out.

"I think we've already shaken it off, to be honest," Young said.

Let's hope so. And maybe that fan with the glove in center field will bring his bat along for Game 2, just in case.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.