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Around Tropicana Field: Rays-Rangers game snapshots

Zobrist is one of few to hit Lee

Rangers starter Cliff Lee baffled Rays hitters all afternoon, but Ben Zobrist had him figured out. Zobrist had two extra-base hits off Lee, a double in the second and a home run in the seventh that accounted for the Rays' only run. He also scorched a line drive to rightfield with two on in the ninth off Neftali Feliz, but it was hit right at Jeff Francoeur.

"The home run was a (two-seam fastball), just like he threw me in the first at-bat except it was up and away,'' Zobrist said. "I feel great to hit three balls hard against those pitchers. You have to feel good about it going into (today). All you can do is hit the ball hard, and sometimes they catch it.''

A feast on Price's heat

In the Rangers' clubhouse after the game, admiration for Rays starter David Price flowed. But Texas knew it did just enough against the left-hander to earn its Game 1 win.

Outfielder Nelson Cruz hit one of two homers off Price, a solo shot to centerfield that came off a 93 mph fastball on a 3-and-0 count in the third.

Cruz said he had the green light to swing and was looking fastball all the way.

"I was looking for it right down the middle, and that's where is was," Cruz said.

Catcher Bengie Molina added a solo homer in the fourth. It was just the fourth time among 33 starts this season Price allowed two homers.

"You look up at the scoreboard, and he's throwing 96, 97," rightfielder Jeff Francoeur said. "I thought the fourth or fifth inning — I don't know if his nerves were settling down or whatever — he started throwing a lot more off-speed stuff and really mixing it up.

"Going into the next time we face him, we're going to hunt for that fastball. You have to against a guy like him. I think you're doing yourself a disservice if you do something else. We were able to hit those four or five fastballs for extra-base hits, which were huge."

Bottoms up

Here was the killer for the Rays: It wasn't so much star sluggers Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero who beat them up (although Guerrero was 2-for-4 with an RBI) as much as it was the bottom of the Rangers' order. No. 7 hitter Jeff Francoeur put the Rangers on the board with a double in the second, and No. 9 hitter Bengie Molina went 3-for-4 with two RBIs, including a solo homer in the fourth. "When you look at our team, all 25 guys are going to get used," Francoeur said. Third baseman Michael Young added, "We have a deep lineup, and guys are always stepping up at different times." No one more than Molina, a .240 hitter with only two homers during the regular season who admitted he doesn't even like to talk about his offense. "I just got lucky," Molina said. "I just saw pitches up in the zone, and I got hits. I got lucky."

The owner is always a pitcher at heart

Rangers owner Nolan Ryan can remember watching his team in 2008 when he was its president — and squirming in his seat. The Rangers were more like a slow-pitch softball team, winning or losing with a flurry of runs, and Ryan vowed to make pitching a priority. Which makes sense coming from a Hall of Fame pitcher who spent 27 seasons in the majors. "The first year, my intent was to just be an observer and get a feel for our organization and what I felt like they needed to address,'' said Ryan, whose group took over ownership of the Rangers in August. "I can tell you there were times when it was very frustrating to watch some of our games because we'd be up 12-6 and lose 13-12. Those games were very painful and long to sit through. But it didn't take me long to realize we needed to address our pitching. That's been No. 1 on the priority list.'' The Rangers won the American League West not only because they can hit, but because they can pitch. Starters Cliff Lee, C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter combined for 52 wins, and all four have an ERA below 4.00 despite playing in a hitter-friendly stadium. Closer Neftali Feliz has been near perfect with 41 saves among 44 chances. Said Rangers manager Ron Washington: "Now in Texas, I don't think people can say anything again about not being able to pitch there because we proved we can."

Texas pickups play major role in win

Texas rightfielder Jeff Francoeur, left, joked Wednesday about how close he was to being left out of the postseason this year. "I'd be at the beach right now," he said. "But there's no better place I'd rather be." The Rangers got Francoeur from the Mets on Aug. 31, the last day players can be acquired and still be eligible for the postseason. He was one of three in-season acquisitions who played key roles in Wednesday's win. While the Rays mostly stayed pat, the Rangers worked throughout the season to acquire pieces that would be valuable in October. Francoeur, a right-handed hitter who hits lefties well, hit a second-inning double that gave Texas a 1-0 lead. Catcher Bengie Molina, a two-time Gold Glove winner who has been an asset throwing out runners and calling games and came from San Francisco on July 1, hit a solo homer in the fourth as part of a three-hit day. And the mound belonged to left-hander Cliff Lee, acquired July 9 from Seattle. All three came to the Rangers with postseason experience. "It's something we're all happy about, especially the guys who have been here all season," said veteran Rangers third baseman Michael Young, a playoff rookie. "The guys that we got are not only good players, but they fit into our clubhouse. We have that blue-collar atmosphere, and they fit right in."

Happy homecomings

Rangers first baseman Jorge Cantu, top left,, unwrapped the towel around his left ankle, revealing a bright red welt from a foul ball that went off it, a lingering mark from an 0-for-4, three-strikeout game Wednesday. But for Cantu, who was the Rays' outstanding rookie in 2004 and team MVP in 2005 as part of his nearly nine years in the organization, his smile was irreplaceable. Cantu played his first playoff game at the stadium where his major-league career began. Cantu, who was acquired by the Rangers from the Marlins on July 29, has been back to the Trop before, but this experience was different. "It is because this is where I started my career," said Cantu, who was traded by Rays to the Reds in July 2007 and signed with the Marlins the following offseason. "To come back here and for my first playoff game to be here, it's something very special. I'm never going to forget it; looking across the diamond and seeing those familiar faces — (Carl) Crawford, Rocco (Baldelli), (third-base coach) Tom Foley, all those guys." Meanwhile, Rangers outfielder and American League MVP candidate Josh Hamilton, who was the No. 1 overall pick in 1999 by the Rays, shrugged off facing his former team in his first postseason game. "I think that time has passed," Hamilton said. "Coming back here in '08 (with the Rangers), my first time back, it was more special then. Now it just seems like another team. Obviously, I'll always remember the Rays and the opportunities they gave me to break into professional baseball. It's just another team, another game." Hamilton said it was special to see Crawford and Baldelli, who came up through the Rays system with him. "It's neat to see Carl," he said. "It's neat to see Rocco back and even some of the coaches. I talked to them in batting practice and said hello. But when game time comes, you just turn it on."

Hamilton's ribs pass test

Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton's head-first slide into second base in the fifth inning might have made Texas fans nervous given his recent rib injury. But the MVP candidate had a little help. After reaching on an error, Hamilton, who cracked his ribs making a catch crashing into the outfield wall a month ago, swiped second base cleanly. He said he didn't feel a thing thanks to the rib pads he wore under his jersey. "It's that time of the year," Hamilton said. "You can't really hold anything back if you're in the lineup. You have to play the way you're capable of playing. The pads helped tremendously … because I came up all the way on the base and didn't feel anything. The only time I felt anything was taking deep breaths." The extra base made a difference. The next hitter, Vladimir Guerrero, hit a double over centerfielder B.J. Upton's head that scored Hamilton for a 5-0 lead.

The Cliff notes

Unfortunately for the Rays, Cliff Lee was, well, Cliff Lee in Game 1. The Rangers lefty merely added to his postseason legend Wednesday, squirming out of a bases-loaded jam in the first and allowing just one run and five hits over seven innings. Lee is now 5-0 with a 1.52 ERA in six postseason starts.

"In the regular season, he was dealing," Rangers leftfielder Nelson Cruz said. "But today he was special."

The Rays loaded the bases with one out in the first, but Lee struck out Carlos Peña and Rocco Baldelli to keep the game scoreless.

"When he gets bases loaded in the first inning, you still feel like he's going to strike out a couple of guys," Rangers rightfielder Jeff Francoeur said. "And that's exactly what he did."

Lee said he stayed positive and felt good even as the Rays loaded the bases.

"There's never going to be a point when I'm on the mound that I feel like it's not going to be my day," Lee said. "You've got to feel like you're going to get out of it, and that's the mentality I had at that point."

Once he escaped the inning, Lee showed why he is considered one of the game's most devastating pitchers. He allowed a leadoff double to Ben Zobrist to start the second then retired the next 12 batters. The only hit he allowed after the second was Zobrist's one-out homer in the seventh.

"I like pitching on the big stage," Lee said. "Just pitching in the big leagues alone is an honor. But when you get an opportunity to make it to the postseason, that's what it's all about."

Once again, Lee, who will be a free agent this offseason, made the most of that opportunity.

"When Cliff gets on a roll like that," Francoeur said, "he showed why he's going to make a lot of money this offseason."

Longoria returns

The last time Evan Longoria played third base was Sept. 23 at New York, when he suffered a left quad strain and missed the Rays' final 10 games. He was back in the lineup Wednesday with mixed results. Longoria stroked a single to right in the first against Cliff Lee to load the bases but went hitless in three other at-bats, including a strikeout. He also made an error in the fourth when he bounced a throw to first baseman Carlos Peña. It was a so-so performance, but Longoria said it had nothing to do with nerves or the injury. "I feel fine,'' Longoria said. "I was a little bit hesitant on all the plays that I normally make. Offensively, I felt great. I made most of the (defensive) plays anyway. I don't think (the injury) was an issue.'' Even after two weeks off — without seeing any live pitching and facing the nasty Lee — Longoria said he felt comfortable. His only goal was to win. "I expected to win the game, bottom line,'' he said. "I was just happy to be back in the lineup and trying to give the team a chance to win. As far as personal stuff, I was just trying to give the team a boost. I felt good physically, which is the biggest thing.''

Tripped up by the Trop mound

Neftali Feliz's struggles early in the ninth had nothing to do with nerves. They had everything to do with the pitching mound: a hole in front that bothered the Rangers' closer when he landed. "I couldn't get very comfortable on the mound," he said. "I wasn't happy with the mound. I was trying to throw strikes, but I couldn't because of the mound." He stepped behind the mound to collect himself after consecutive walks. He then retired the next three batters, including two strikeouts, to end the game. "I was losing my control," he said. "I realized I had to throw strikes, and that was it."

Swing time

The way the Rangers figure it, Game 1 was decided in about 20 minutes — the time between the start of the bottom of the first and the end of the top of the second. To reset what happened: The Rays loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the first. But Cliff Lee struck out Carlos Peña and Rocco Baldelli. The Rangers then responded with two runs in the top of the second. "From the end of the first to the second inning, you could kind of tell the dugout went from nervous — maybe a little bit tight — to all of a sudden everybody having fun," Rangers rightfielder Jeff Francoeur said. The key was getting out of the first without giving up a run. "It's not very often you give up three hits in one inning and they don't score," Lee said. "To get out of that with a zero was huge. It was a momentum-builder for our team. It's basically the same as scoring runs."

Game 1 firsts

Pitch: The Rays' David Price, a fastball strike to Elvis Andrus.

Out: Andrus' grounder to third.

Hit: The Rangers' Josh Hamilton, a bloop single to center in the first.

Scoring threat: The Rangers' first, two men on and two outs before Nelson Cruz grounded out to Price to end the inning.

Rays hit: Jason Bartlett, a single to rightfield in the first.

Strikeout: The Rays' B.J. Upton, by Cliff Lee in the first.

Extra-base hit: The Rangers' Jeff Francoeur, a double in the second.

Run: The Rangers' Ian Kinsler, in the second on Francoeur's double after leading off with a single.

Rays extra-base hit: Ben Zobrist, a double in the second.

Homer: Cruz off Price, a two-out solo shot in the third on a 3-and-0 pitch to make it 3-0.

Error: Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, bouncing a throw that Carlos Peña could not scoop at first on a grounder by Andrus.

Stolen base: Hamilton, in the fifth.

Pitching change: The Rays' Chad Qualls, replacing Price with two outs in the seventh.

Rays run: Zobrist, a one-out home run off Lee in the seventh on a 1-and-0 pitch to cut the Rangers' lead to 5-1.

Double play: The Rays, in the ninth, Longoria to second baseman Sean Rodriguez to Peña on a grounder by Andrus.

Quick hits

• When Jeff Francoeur doubled to score Ian Kinsler in the second, it was Texas' first playoff run in 15 innings dating to Oct. 7, 1999.

• The Rays bullpen has thrown 23 consecutive scoreless innings, including the regular season. It has not allowed an earned run in 38 consecutive innings.

• Longtime Rays employees R.J. Harrison (director of scouting) and Mitch Lukevics (director of minor-league operations) threw out the ceremonial first pitches.

Anthony Andro of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this report.

Around Tropicana Field: Rays-Rangers game snapshots 10/06/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 7, 2010 12:15am]

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