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Longoria homers twice, Rays beat White Sox in ALDS opener

ST. PETERSBURG

There was some waiting, some wondering, even some worrying as the Rays readied for Thursday's first postseason appearance in franchise history. As much as they tried to play it cool and say there were relaxed, there was some sense of how different it was, manager Joe Maddon repeatedly asking his coaches for the mood of the players.

"Anxiety," was the way DH Cliff Floyd described it.

And when TBS couldn't get the name of the city or the team right in its opening, who in the Devil knew how the game itself would go?

Actually, just like so many of their others.

For as much as the scene and the setting at sold-out and energized Tropicana Field were different, the 6-4 win over the White Sox was very much a typical show.

They got two home runs from rookie Evan Longoria, who became the second player in history to do so in his first two postseason at-bats, and they got the usual big-game performance from starter James Shields.

They got behind early, and roared back, as they tend to do. They got huge outs from their bullpen, a pair of Grant Balfour strikeouts with the bases loaded in the seventh, and six more from J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler.

Heck, they even had one of their stars, Carlos Pena, leave due to an injury (scratched cornea) and got a key contribution from his replacement, Willy Aybar.

"We've been doing it that way all year," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "Why change it now? It's been working."

It was the Rays' 98th win of their magical season, and the first of 11 they hope to accumulate in the three-round postseason. Of more immediacy, it gave them a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five division series. Historically since the 1995 launch of the wild card, it gives them a 67 percent chance to win the series. Realistically, it gives them a shot with another win tonight to ensure, at worst, they would return from Chicago for a Game 5 next week.

"For our team, to get that first win is huge for us and for our confidence," said Scott Kazmir, who starts tonight. "To get that first game out of the way at home and hopefully have a chance to go up 2-0 to go on the road, what more can you ask for?"

They could ask for a little less drama. But that wouldn't be their style.

Longoria said Wednesday that he would be nervous until he got his first ground ball and took his first swing. So he made an easy play at third to end Shields' tone-setting 10-pitch first inning, then he made it look easy, knocking the first pitch he saw from Javier Vazquez over the leftfield fence.

The 1-0 lead lasted only until the third. A couple of hits and a bunt got Shields in trouble, a popup and a 2-and-2 count on Dewayne Wise brought him to the verge of escaping, and a misplaced changeup that Wise knocked over the rightfield fence left the Rays trailing the more veteran White Sox 3-1.

And how did the Rays handle that?

Again, just like usual.

"That's what we've done all year, and it's no different in the postseason, "Longoria said. "I could see it. No one came into the dugout with their heads hanging, no one was down or nervous or anxious or anything. It was just the same. And when you see that in the dugout, you know you'll be all right and be able to battle back."

They got one run when Jason Bartlett singled and Akinori Iwamura tripled and tied it on a sac fly by Aybar, who stepped in when Pena left with blurred vision. Longoria, swinging a new Louisville Slugger I-13 model, needed two pitches this at-bat before unloading another homer that struck the C-ring catwalk and put them ahead to stay.

There was some more drama, when the Sox loaded the bases in the seventh to chase Shields, and Balfour and Chicago's Orlando Cabrera and a few others had some words.

But the Rays got through that, too, when Balfour and Howell did what they've done all year, and Wheeler got the final three outs.

"Again," manager Joe Maddon said, "an entire team effort."

"It's just kind of the way we've done it all year," Wheeler said.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Longoria homers twice, Rays beat White Sox in ALDS opener 10/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 3, 2008 6:36pm]
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