In 2011, the defending American League Champion Texas Rangers featured what might have been the most talented roster in team history. And yet entering play on a Monday afternoon in St. Petersburg, Florida, they found themselves deadlocked in a 1-1 series tie with the Tampa Bay Rays.
After dropping the series opener on Friday in an annihilating 9 to 0 home loss, the Rangers felt they had something left to prove. After all, they had just finished a regular season that saw them set a franchise record with 96 wins, thanks to a potent lineup and a resilient bullpen. So, the following night, those bats came back to life, sparking an 8-6 win in Arlington to even the series before heading to St. Pete. A win in game three would set Texas back into the driver's seat for the best-of-five series, while a loss would put them on their heels.
The opposing starters
Veteran righthander Colby Lewis would toe the rubber for Texas while the Rays would send out veteran lefty David Price. Lewis was making his fifth career start in the playoffs and had fared very well during the 2010 playoff run. He won three of his four starts with the only non-win coming in his very first playoff start, and it happened to be in game three of the ALDS against the Rays. During the regular season, Lewis didn't accomplish anything overly spectacular, except that he proved himself as the team's workhorse, logging 200+ innings for the second straight year. His meager 4.40 ERA was enough to get him 14 wins and 10 losses in his 32 starts.
For Price, well, the Texas hitters usually had his number when he faced them. In 2010, he pitched the opener and the fifth game of the ALDS. Both ended in 5-1 victories for the Rangers with Price taking the loss. But his 2011 season was nothing like his 2010 season. After winning 19 games the year before, Price's record had fallen to a lackluster 12-13 in 2011, despite a formidable 3.49 ERA and 218 strikeouts over 224 1/3 innings.
At the plate, the Texas lineup featured a whole lot of power. Sluggers Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Adrián Beltré, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler combined for 148 of the team's 210 home runs and 438 of the team's 807 RBIs. To say that any hitter in the lineup could go yard at any time was an understatement.
For Tampa, their lineup included Evan Longoria and everyone else. Now keep in mind, that's not a slight against that team. They'd made the playoffs for the third time in four seasons and did a lot with a roster void of any real superstars. Among that era of MLB teams, the 2008-2013 Tampa Bay Rays epitomized the concept of "Team Play." So, no matter what the opposing lineup looked like, or which pitcher squared off against them, they were going to put up a considerable fight.
The slow start
For the lineups, not a lot happened through the first third of the ballgame. Price and Lewis stood toe-to-toe with three shutout innings apiece. While Price had allowed three hits, they were all singles that proved harmless. The brewing story though, was that he'd walked off the mound in the middle of the fourth biting on his left index finger. Meanwhile, Colby had faced the minimum the first time through the order until the first pitch of the fourth inning.
In the bottom of the fourth, Rays left fielder and leadoff man Desmond Jennings jumped all over Lewis's first offering and deposited it into the left field seats. What appeared to be a middle-in fastball electrified the Tropicana Field faithful and put Tampa up 1-0. That would remain the score until the top of the seventh.
The big inning
After escaping the fourth by stranding a Rays runner at third, Lewis continued his strong outing in the fifth and sixth by surrendering just a walk between the seven Tampa Bay hitters he faced. Meanwhile, Price escaped a long inning of his own in the top of the sixth after Texas had put men on second and third but earned nothing from it.
Leading off the top of the seventh, Beltré roped the first pitch into left field for a single. A wild pitch on Price's sixth toss to Napoli moved him to second. One pitch later, the Rangers finally broke through as Napoli pummeled a high-and-tight fastball deep into the left center field seats, putting Texas up 2-1 with nobody out.
Price would seemingly recover and induce ground outs to the next two Texas hitters. However, the ever-pesky Craig Gentry would work a 3-1 count and then drive a single up the middle to end the outing for Price. As Gentry loved to do so often, he would immediately steal second on a 2-0 count. Kinsler would then walk, and in tandem, the duo stole second and third together to put the pressure on reliever Brandon Gomes.
The strategy worked as he ended up walking Elvis Andrus to load the bases and thus ending Gomes' quick appearance. Tampa would call on southpaw J.P. Howell, to face the left-handed-hitting Hamilton. The 2010 American League MVP promptly welcomed Howell into the game by jumping on a low-and-away pitch he really had no business hitting. But he lined it into right for a single, driving in both Gentry and Kinsler to extend the Texas lead to 4-1 and sending Howell back to the Rays clubhouse.
The futile comeback effort
To begin the bottom of the seventh, Rangers manager Ron Washington made the decision to bring in journeyman reliever Darren Oliver, who retired the first Rays hitter and then gave up three straight singles, thereby ending his effort after just 11 pitches with, the go-ahead run at bat for Tampa Bay. Second year righty Alexi Ogando would come in to try and put out the fire. He induced a weak grounder that got a crucial second out, but did allow a run to cross, making the score 4 to 2, Texas.
In the bottom of the eighth, Jennings would strike again for his second solo homer of the night. But that would be all the Rays attack could muster the rest of the evening.
In the bottom of the ninth, closer Neftalí Feliz would enter the contest. Casey Kotchman would pop out to short and then Sean Rodríguez would line a single to center. In a type of showdown that personifies playoff baseball, Kelly Shoppach would fight Feliz to a full count. But on the eighth offering from Feliz, he would drive a sharp grounder to Beltré at third. The defensive stalwart would shoot it to Kinsler at second, who sent it to Mitch Moreland, completing the 5-4-3 double play, earning a pivotal second win of the series for the Rangers.
Lewis earned his first and only win of the 2011 postseason, while Price took his third straight playoff loss to the Rangers. For Napoli, his home run was just the third of his career in the playoffs, but the first of three he would hit that October for the eventual American League Champions, with the other two coming in the World Series. For the Rangers, it was the second of the ten wins they'd earn that postseason. For the mental health of our readers, I won't go any further beyond that.