Commentary

Despite loss, Rays actually in good spot

Tampa doesn't have its back against a wall for a change after splitting with Texas

Originally Published: October 1, 2011
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Tampa Bay Rays reached this postseason by spending the entire month of September overcoming almost every baseball obstacle imaginable other than their owner being married to one of the McCourts.

So it simply would have been too easy for the Rays to take a commanding two-game lead in the division series with ace James Shields on the mound for Game 2 Saturday. The All-Star who pitched more complete games (11) this year than anyone had since 1999 suddenly went from "Big Game'' James to "Grapefruit League Game'' James. One night after rookie Matt Moore dazzled the Rangers with seven scoreless innings in just his second big league start, Tampa Bay's all-time leader in victories turned a three-run lead into a two-run deficit by hitting two batters, throwing two wild pitches and allowing three singles in the fourth inning of an eventual 8-6 loss to the Rangers.

As they say, stuff happens. But geez, where's the bases-loaded triple play when you need it?

Still, going home with a series tied 1-1 and your rotation all lined up is a somewhat superior situation than say, trailing a contender by nine games with four weeks to play. Or trailing a team by seven runs with two innings to play. Or trailing a team by one run with one strike left. Or, for that matter, going anywhere trailing 2-0 in a series.

"We've had our backs against the wall and felt what that feels like. This is fun,'' Evan Longoria said. "We came in here and did what we wanted to do. Leaving 2-0 would have been a huge lift going home. But we did beat the one guy we've had a lot of trouble beating in C.J. Wilson.''

Naturally, the feeling was similar in the Rangers' clubhouse after they beat Shields.

"Every win in the playoffs is a big win,'' said Wilson, who gave up eight runs the Game 1 loss. "Their big thing [in Game 1] is that Moore pitched so well because he's a rookie. If Shields beat me, that's different. But the dual thing of me to lose and him to win was a big thing. So [in Game 2] it was like, 'Yeah, we evened the series but we also beat Shields.'''

"The bottom line is I didn't do my job,'' Shields said.

Shields and the Rays were cruising with a 3-0 lead in the fourth when he hit Elvis Andrus to lead off the inning. He later hit Adrian Beltre to force in the Rangers' first run of the series, but the big blow was when catcher Mike Napoli tied the game with a bases-loaded single after fouling off repeated pitches while the sellout crowd loudly chanted something perhaps never chanted so loudly in a baseball stadium: his name. "When I heard it, I was like, 'You guys can't do this to me now in this situation,''' Napoli said.

[+] EnlargeJames Shields
Tim Heitman/US PresswireJames Shields wasn't "Big Game James" in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Rangers.

"They're screaming 'Na-Po-Li!' there in that big at-bat with the bases loaded and the whole stadium is chanting his last name and I don't know how he is up there staying focused,'' Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "He had a heck of an at-bat. He kept battling and battling, maybe seeing eight or nine pitches.''

Texas added two insurance runs off Shields in the sixth and the Rangers needed it because Longoria hit a three-run homer off reliever Koji Uehara to make the score 7-6 in the seventh. All of a sudden everyone was reminded of how Longoria's three-run homer in the eighth inning Wednesday night helped bring the Rays back from a near-certain loss to the Yankees. There was no repeat, though. Mike Adams and Neftali Feliz shut down the Rays the rest of the way.

Nonetheless, the Rays will resume the series at home with David Price and Jeremy Hellickson lined up to start against Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison in Games 3 and 4. A sellout is even expected. And they might not even leave early this time.

"Of course you would prefer 2-0. Of course. Everyone would. That's stupid,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "But to go back 1-1 -- we will take it right now. We'll have an off-day, try to catch our breath. This is probably, what, the 20th 'playoff game' we've had already this year and counting.''

"Our story is going to take a few pitfalls and today was one,'' Johnny Damon said. "I think a day off [Sunday] will be huge for our team. Sometimes you don't want days off when you're rolling, but this is definitely a tough loss so we can relax a little Sunday and come back on Monday and get the job done.''

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com