|ESPN.com: MLB Playoffs 2011||[Print without images]|
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays find themselves in a familiar position: Bottom of the ninth, fourth-and-long, down to their last bullet, their backs against the wall at the end of a dark alley and their exit strategy blocked by & well, the Rays have been here so long they've probably run out of metaphors.
"We've been in a lot of situations where we've been behind the eight ball,'' Tampa Bay outfielder Sam Fuld said.
Thanks, Sam. You came through in the clutch. Just like your team has done so often this past month. But after losing 4-3 to Colby Lewis, Mike Napoli and the Texas Rangers in Game 3 of the American League Division Series on Monday, the Rays face yet another possible elimination in Game 4. Win, and they play a deciding Game 5 in Texas. Lose, and they play golf at the course of their choice.
"We're definitely used to it,'' designated hitter Johnny Damon said. "But we definitely would like to be in their situation.''
True. But they're definitely in a better situation than, say, the Boston Red Sox.
Tampa Bay's situation Monday was looking very promising up until the seventh inning. Rookie Desmond Jennings gave them a 1-0 lead in the fourth with a home run off Lewis, the latest candidate to wear the Mr. October crown. David Price, looking to beat Texas for the first time in his career, held the Rangers scoreless the first six innings. But then Napoli, who hurt the Rays with a two-run single in Game 2, did so again when he hit a two-run homer in the seventh despite having fallen behind 0-2 earlier in the count.
In addition to the home run, Napoli also threw out a base stealer and stole a base, the first catcher to do that in a postseason game. "This is the Year of the Napoli,'' Maddon said.
Napoli's home run didn't kill the Rays, though. Brandon Gomes and J.P. Howell buried them by relieving Price in the seventh and retiring exactly no one. Gomes walked the only two batters he faced and Howell gave up a two-run single to Josh Hamilton.
|Jeremy Hellickson gets the ball in Game 4, charged with saving the Rays' season.|
Howell missed last year with a torn labrum and was shaky enough this year that he acknowledged being "on the bubble and looking over his shoulder'' (and probably tossing salt over his other shoulder while crossing his fingers) when it came to making the postseason roster. Maddon said they eventually put him on the roster specifically for matchups against lefties like Hamilton. Whoops. Howell threw Hamilton two curveballs and the slugger drilled the second into right field for a two-run single that gave Texas a 4-1 lead.
Asked how he felt afterward, Howell rattled off a list: "Anger, disgust, real sick, it's all a negative.''
Mike Adams would have felt similarly had his team not held on. The bullpen should be an edge for the Rangers, but the Rays beat up on a Texas setup man for the second game in a row. After Koji Uehara gave up three runs without retiring anyone in Game 2, Adams gave up a leadoff home run to Desmond Jennings in the eighth Monday and then walked the next three batters. The Rays, however, didn't score after the homer, thanks in part to a well-timed pitchout that nailed B.J. Upton. Still, Texas had to extend closer Neftali Feliz to get out of that eighth-inning jam, which could have an impact in Game 4 if he's needed.
For Game 4, the Rays will return to their time-tested strategy by sending another rookie to the mound, though unlike Game 1 winner Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson wasn't pitching for the Durham Bulls a month ago. With a record of 13-10 and a 2.95 ERA, Hellickson also is a strong candidate for rookie of the year, though Maddon says Hellickson is so poised, "I have to be reminded that he's a rookie.''
"He handles the moment extremely well,'' Maddon said. "You'll see him step back when he is really upset, push the hat back up on his head and rub the ball a little harder than normal. That's when he's really upset.''
Texas counters with Matt Harrison (14-9, 3.39), who got his feet wet in the postseason with two-thirds of an inning of mop-up duty in Game 1. "I think it definitely helped,'' he said. "It was better for me to do that than throw on the side. To actually get into the postseason game and get the butterflies out of the way was big for me.''
So that's the setup for Game 4, when it's win-or-else for the Rays and close-the-deal for the Rangers with most of the marbles on the line. As the Rays dressed Monday evening, the clubhouse chalkboard listed the schedule for Wednesday: Bags packed by 2:30, bus to the airport at 3:30 and flight to Texas at 4:30.
"We've been underdogs the whole year,'' Damon said. "'We're not going to make the playoffs.' 'We're not going to catch Boston.' 'We lost too many pieces from last year.' And we as a team look at each other and say, 'That's OK. Count us as underdogs. We're not going to buy into it.' Hopefully tomorrow is another great finish for us and we're planning to go to Texas.''Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Jim Caple on Twitter: @jimcaple