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Saturday, October 1, 2011
Balanced Rangers impose will on Rays

By Jim Reeves
ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Ten years ago if someone had suggested that the Texas Rangers could score five runs in an inning without hitting the ball out of the park, the poor deluded fool would have been laughed out of town.

Adrian Beltre
The Rangers' first run of this postseason came when James Shields struck Adrian Beltre in the leg with the bases loaded.
Today, in this new era of Rangers baseball, this is exactly what makes them so dangerous. The team that absolutely can -- and often still does -- hit baseballs to the far reaches of the grandstand doesn't have to do that to survive anymore. It is yet another reason multiple major league scouts have labeled Texas the most balanced team in the American League's postseason tournament.

It is also why Tampa Bay Rays ace James Shields, who had dominated the Rangers in two regular-season starts, walked off the mound two hitters into the bottom of the sixth inning at The Ballpark in Arlington on Saturday night shaking his head in disbelief.

There was substantial reason for his confusion. In a pivotal fourth inning that may well have changed the tenor and direction of this AL division series, Shields had surrendered five runs on three singles, two hit batters, two wild pitches and a weak roller to short. Oh, and he coughed up a 3-0 lead in the process.

Count 'em, folks: five huge runs, the Rangers' first in postseason baseball since the seventh inning of Game 5 of the World Series last November.

New ballgame, sports fans.

Most importantly, the Rangers' eventual 8-6 victory warded off the all-too-real potential of a Rays sweep and sends the series on to a Game 3 on Monday at the Trop even at a game apiece.

Texas fans can breathe again. Things don't look quite as grim today as they did Friday night after rookie Matt Moore held the Rangers to two hits in a 9-0 Rays hammerfest.

We shouldn't be so surprised anymore. These aren't your daddy's Rangers and that point was re-emphasized in Saturday night's come-from-behind victory. By no stretch of the imagination did they bludgeon Shields into submission. They simply imposed their will.

Shields was 2-0 in two starts against the Rangers this season, allowing just one run and eight hits in 17 innings. In those two games, the Rangers could not keep themselves from swinging at his maddening changeup.

"In those two games, I don't think he threw a single changeup in the strike zone," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "Tonight, we finally forced him to get it up."

That triggered a chain of events in the fourth that turned the game, and maybe the whole series, around.

Mitch Moreland
Mitch Moreland's eighth-inning shot showed that the Rangers haven't completely abandoned the long ball.
"I think he realized we were sitting on his changeup and getting better swings at it," said catcher Mike Napoli, whose bases-loaded, two-run single was the biggest hit of the night.

That, in turn, forced Shields to go more to his breaking ball instead. Result: One of the hit batters and both wild pitches were results of curveballs that Shields, along with catcher Kelly Shoppach, couldn't quite control.

"That's what I was seeing," Washington said. "We got to the third inning and started laying off [the changeup] a little bit.

"He's a very good pitcher, but even the best get beat sometimes and tonight he got beat."

Leading 3-0 after Matt Joyce's two-run homer in the top of the fourth, Shields started the bottom of the inning by plunking Elvis Andrus with a curveball that stayed too far inside. Josh Hamilton and Michael Young followed with hard singles off changeups in the strike zone, loading the bases.

Shields forced in the Rangers' first run when he hit Adrian Beltre in the leg with a wild fastball, bringing Napoli to the plate. The Rays right-hander fell behind 3-0, but came back to fill up the count. Napoli then fouled off three pitches, including one changeup that he drilled just foul down the third base line. On the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Napoli hooked a line single into left, tying the score.

After Nelson Cruz struck out and Beltre and Napoli moved up on a curveball in the dirt, Shields bounced another 3-2 curveball to a swinging David Murphy. The ball caromed off Shoppach's shinguard on one hop. Beltre scored, Napoli advanced to third and Murphy was safe at first without a throw. Mitch Moreland's slow roller to short brought home the Rangers' fifth run of the inning.

"They benefited from a couple hit batters, a couple balls in the dirt that got away. It kind of snowballed on us," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "It was kind of a fortuitous thing for them, but that happens. They are an aggressive team on the bases; they do those kind of things."

Now they do, but it hasn't always been that way.

"As an offense, we're not too worried about how we're scoring runs," said Ian Kinsler, who lined a two-run double in the sixth to bump the Rangers' lead to 7-3. "We just want to score runs any way we can, whether it's Murph swinging and missing and getting to first or whatever it is. As long as we're scoring runs, we're happy."

When Napoli and Cruz led off the sixth with singles -- Cruz's hit on Shields' 100th pitch -- Maddon had no choice but to go to his bullpen. Shields walked to the dugout in disgust, clearly frustrated. After giving up just a single run in his two previous starts against Texas, this time he would wind up surrendering seven earned runs.

"It wasn't just a matter of making him bring the changeup up," Young said. "He's got other good pitches. We just had to force him to get everything in the strike zone."

That took determination, willpower and, most of all, patience. What a strange word to describe a Texas Rangers offense.

Like I said, not your daddy's Rangers anymore.

It's not like the Rays went limping home in disgrace. They came here hoping for at least a split and they got it. Maybe it didn't happen the way they'd figured it would, but a split is a split is a split.

Now, finally, after what Maddon called "our 20th playoff game," the Rays get a day to rest Sunday. Then they get the Rangers on their turf for two games. The Rangers must do exactly what the Rays just did to bring the series back to Texas next Thursday: split.

They have proved they can do that, if not more. They can do it with solid starting pitching, with a terrific bullpen, outstanding defense, aggressive baserunning and, yes, home run power.

Moreland, in fact, supplied the finishing touch to the Game 2 victory with an insurance run on a solo homer in the eighth inning.

Wow, what a blast from the past.

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