|After their 5-2 win last night the Rays live to play another day (Yahoo Sports)|
This game--Game 163--wouldn't have happened two years ago. Instead, both teams would be lamenting how they finished one game behind the Cleveland Indians--the true Wild Card winners. But the times, and rules, have changed, so both teams were given a second shot at October baseball.
The Rangers were red-hot, having won seven straight games to close out the year. That sprint to the finish left Ron Washington unable to start Yu Darvish or Derek Holland. He went with 22 year-old rookie Martin Perez, who acquitted himself well this year but wouldn't have been anyone's first choice to start a game of this magnitude.
That's what made the Rays clear favorites to win. In this do-or-die, win-or-go-home cage-match,Tampa Bay turned to its ace and reigning AL Cy Young winner David Price. Putting his postseason struggles against Texas aside, the three-time All-Star is widely considered to be one of baseball's best pitchers and his availability seemed likely to swing the game in Tampa Bay's favor.
Sure enough, it did. Price pitched the Rays into the playoffs by going the distance, scattering seven hits and allowing just two runs. Tampa Bay staked him to an early lead, drawing first blood on Delmon Young's sac fly in the top of the first. The Rays led from that point forward, and with Price pitching their lead was never seriously threatened.
Perez didn't pitch poorly, but simply wasn't good enough to outduel Price. He departed in the sixth after striking out Ben Zobrist to open the frame, giving way to Alexi Ogando. Texas was losing 3-1 at the time, but doubles from Evan Longoria and David DeJesus made that deficit 4-1 before Ogando could close out the inning.
The Rangers responded with a run in their half of the inning on an RBI double from Alex Rios, but Price shut them out for the rest of the night. Tampa added an insurance run in the top of the ninth to make the score 5-2. Rather than tap into his bullpen, Joe Maddon let Price, who had thrown 108 pitches through eight, come back out to finish what he started. He finished strong, setting down Adrian Beltre, A.J. Pierzynski and Nelson Cruz in order.
(Speaking of Cruz, all the hoopla surrounding his return from a 50 game suspension turned out to be much ado about nothing. Cruz was a non-factor, going 0-for-4 with a strikeout).
Price put the team on his back, but so did Evan Longoria, who continued his run of monster games on the final day of the season. Longo went 3-for-4 with a single, double, and two-run homer. The long ball was his seventh career blast on the final day of the season, breaking a tie with Stan Musial. Longoria clearly understands the importance of saving his best for last.
So for the second year in a row, the Rangers are headed home after narrowly missing the postseason and Washington will likely be fired as a result. The Rays travel to Cleveland, where they will take on Terry Francona's Indians tomorrow night in another sudden-death affair--the Wild Card (aka coin toss) playoff game. Tampa Bay will pin its playoff hopes on Alex Cobb, while Cleveland will ride rookie Danny Salazar, who has just ten big league starts under his belt.
Obviously this game could go either way, but my gut tells me the Rays will come out on top. I say Tampa Bay 4, Cleveland 3.