ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- When the baseball playoffs began a week ago, certain storylines looked more compelling than others. The Bobby Cox farewell tour would provide the sentiment. Philadelphia came in with the most imposing 1-2-3 pitching combination since Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were at their peak and Ted Turner and Jane Fonda were generating celebrity star power in Atlanta. And of course, the New York Yankees are going to land the prime-time draw whether they're facing Carl Pavano and the Minnesota Twins or HBO's Kenny Powers and Los Charros.
Those early-afternoon starting times told the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers everything they needed to know about their place in the pecking order. Texas outfielder Jeff Francoeur said the teams got "hosed" when they had to take the field at 12:07 p.m. Central time Sunday. That's basically what happens when TV executives assume that sports fans in 48 states won't care a whole lot about a matchup.
I'd like to believe that we're all pretty competitive people in this locker room, but it seems like Cliff [Lee] just competes at anything. He's the most competitive person I've met.
”-- Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler
Yet here we are -- one Roy Halladay no-hitter, one Brooks Conrad heartache and one Twins meltdown into the playoffs -- and the Rays and Rangers are the last division series standing. They've outlasted the Yankees versus Twins, Phillies versus Reds and Giants versus Braves, and might come close to outlasting the completion of the Chilean mining rescue operation.
So, one league championship series slot is left to be filled, and it will happen Tuesday night when the Rays and Rangers meet at 8:07 p.m. ET at Tropicana Field. They've graduated to prime time by default.
That's too bad in a way, given that this series has been short on aesthetic value but long on plot twists. Texas is looking for the first postseason series win in franchise history, and Tampa Bay is trying to strike a blow for AL East pride and go on to face the Yankees in the quintessential behemoth versus "window of opportunity" team matchup.
David Price, the No. 1 draft pick in 2007 and a homegrown ace, will take the mound for Tampa Bay, looking to make amends for a disappointing performance in Game 1. He'll be opposed by Cliff Lee, who was acquired from Seattle in a July deadline trade amid expectations that Texas was just a pit stop on the way to a nine-figure free-agent deal with New York. Call Lee a short-termer or a "hired gun," if you wish. His fellow Rangers think of him as a pitching assassin.
"His competitiveness is off the charts," said Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler, who has taken his lumps against Lee in clubhouse chess games. "I'd like to believe that we're all pretty competitive people in this locker room, but it seems like Cliff just competes at anything. Who can eat the fastest, who shot the biggest deer -- just random stuff. He's the most competitive person I've met."
Lee isn't about to be fazed by pitching in a hostile environment. But then, home-field advantage has been worth zilch throughout this series. In Games 1 and 2 at Tampa Bay, the Rangers outscored the Rays 11-1 and held the Tampa lineup to eight hits. Then the series shifted to Arlington, and Texas was five outs from advancing when the Rays suddenly regained their offensive equilibrium. The Rays kicked the ball around defensively in the St. Petersburg portion of the series, and the Rangers were plagued by some bad pitch selection and questionable bullpen management by manager Ron Washington in Game 3 before making two errors Sunday in Arlington.
"Game 5 is all about who executes better," said Rangers third baseman Michael Young. "I don't think home field really matters at this point. Whoever pitches better, plays D and swings it, that's who's going to win the ballgame. We're looking forward to it. Hopefully it's loud, and hopefully it's a lot of fun."
If Lee's Game 1 start reinforced one impression among the Tampa hitters, it's the importance of scoring early, before he locks in on catcher Bengie Molina, establishes a rhythm and begins carving up the strike zone. Lee posted a 3.86 ERA in the first inning this season, and opponents hit .279 against him in the inning. That's not exactly a beatdown, but he gets a lot stingier after that.
And he's not inclined to nibble. Lee threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 27 hitters he faced, and he logged 76 strikes and 28 balls in seven innings. He struck out 10 batters and didn't walk a man to record the third double-digit-strikeout, no-walk postseason start of his career. Not bad, given that Tom Seaver, Sterling Hitchcock, Don Newcombe and Deacon Phillippe managed the feat only once apiece.
"It's very well documented that he pounds the strike zone," said Tampa Bay first baseman Carlos Pena. "At the same time, you don't want to go out there and just swing at everything because he's a very smart pitcher. We know we have our work cut out for us."
In the regular season, the Rays ranked third in the American League with 802 runs scored and 13th (ahead of only Seattle) with 1,343 hits. They led the majors with 672 walks, but Lee and fellow Rangers starter C.J. Wilson took away that aspect of their game at the start of the series.
"I say it a lot, but batting average is such an overrated stat," said Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton. "We want to create baserunners, and regardless of how we do it -- if it's by walks or getting base hits -- that's fine. We create runs with speed and making pitchers work counts and doing things like that."
The Rangers, who slugged .391 on the road compared with .447 at home, went deep four times in the two games at Tropicana Field and displayed a knack for turning around the hard stuff. Price threw his fastball almost 80 percent of the time, and the Rangers hit it with authority in a 5-1 victory in Game 1.
The one thing Price truly hoped for -- a chance at redemption -- has come to pass. It comes against an opponent with the stature and the stuff to bring out the best in him.
"Obviously, I don't want to have to pitch against a guy like Cliff Lee every time," Price said. "But it's fun -- it is. This is what you grow up seeing as little kids, the postseason games and World Series games and matchups like this one. Now that I get to be a part of one, I need to grasp it and take control of it and give us a chance to win."
A series that didn't attract much of an audience at the beginning suddenly has moved to center stage. When Price throws his first pitch to Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus on Tuesday, a whole lot of people will be paying attention.