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Deciding game promises to bring out best from Rays, Rangers

ARLINGTON, Texas

Think of the frustration. The humiliation and the outrage.

Think of the first two games at Tropicana Field last week and how it seemed fate had picked a cruel time to abandon Tampa Bay. The Rangers were brilliant, the Rays were awful, and the umpires were scamps.

And then think of the exhilaration. The drama and the glory.

Think of Matt Garza and Wade Davis throwing bullets off another team's mound, and Carlos Peña rising from the dread. The Rays were brilliant, the Rangers were antsy, and the American League division series was tied.

And now think of it this way:

The best is yet to come.

This five-act drama played out across borders and ballparks is returning to Tampa Bay for a winner-take-all finish Tuesday night at Tropicana Field. Division champ vs. division champ. Ace vs. ace. Dream vs. dream.

"This is the beauty of baseball. You have to play these other four games to lead up to that final act," said Rays owner Stu Sternberg. "Just getting to the playoffs is already such a long road. You have the drama building up day after day to reach this point.

"To me, there's nothing better than this."

This is the game where memories reside, the final game of a best-of-five or best-of-seven series. This is Aaron Boone hitting a home run in the bottom of the 11th to beat the Red Sox. It is Sid Bream sliding in ahead of the throw. It is the Big Red Machine winning a pennant on a wild pitch, and it is Chris Chambliss sending the Yankees to the World Series on a home run.

It is baseball's first postseason series to go the distance since the Rays went to a Game 7 against Boston in the American League Championship Series in 2008.

"It's all you can ask for," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "All you can possibly ask for."

All this after the Rays began the weekend on the verge of one of the most lopsided performances in division series history. They had lost Game 1 by four runs and Game 2 by six. They had not led either game for even a second, and they had pushed just one run across the plate through 18 innings.

Yet by the time early Saturday evening had become late Sunday afternoon, Tampa Bay had changed the direction in which its story was traveling. After beating the Rangers 6-3 in Game 3 and 5-2 in Game 4, the Rays are now one victory away from becoming the second team in postseason history to lose its first two games at home and come back to win a best-of-five series.

"Our swan song isn't going to be those two stinkers we threw out there last week," Sternberg said. "We get to go at it again."

Packed stadium. Each team with an All-Star pitcher on the mound. The Yankees waiting in the wings. If Game 5 does not turn out to be a classic Tuesday night, it won't be for lack of intrigue.

The Rangers have been playing in Texas for nearly 40 years and have yet to win a playoff series. They came within five outs of eliminating the Rays on Saturday in Game 3 but stumbled in the eighth inning. Less than 24 hours later, they found themselves preparing for another flight they swore would not be necessary.

"It's a lot different for them than us right now," said Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey. "We get to go back home, and they're having to pack their bags when they weren't expecting to do that. I've been on that other side — in Houston when (Albert) Pujols hit the homer (to put the Cardinals over the Astros in the 2005 National League Championship Series). We were literally one strike away from going to the World Series, and having three days off and partying like rock stars. We went from that to almost throwing up, and having to go back home, sleeping on it, packing your bags and flying the next day."

The last time Tropicana Field saw an elimination game, the Rays were the ones who were backpedaling. They had blown a 7-0 lead in Game 5 in Boston and then lost 4-2 in Game 6. That magical season came down to a Game 7, where Rocco Baldelli drove in the winning run that sent the Rays to the 2008 World Series.

"It's a different level of baseball in those games," Baldelli said Sunday. "Unless you've been there and been able to play in it, you've never experienced anything like it. When those games end, you sit at your locker and you are completely exhausted. You have nothing left. Your attention has been so focused for so long that you're completely drained physically, psychologically and emotionally."

And that's all we're asking for Tuesday night.

"So many kids dream of being in this position, so let's be sure we honor that," Peña said. "Don't take it for granted. Play hard, and give it all you have. Because I don't think there's anything more exciting than that last ball game in a series."

Think of the anticipation. The nerves and the stakes.

Think of the possibilities.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Deciding game promises to bring out best from Rays, Rangers 10/10/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 11, 2010 8:26am]

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