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Rookie John Jaso saves Tampa Bay Rays' season with one swing

ARLINGTON, Texas — One at-bat. Four pitches. And a season is rescued.

Oh sure, there is more to it than that. There is Matt Garza coming up large. There is B.J. Upton breaking through, and there is Carlos Peña prolonging his career in a Tampa Bay uniform.

But if the Rays live to see another postseason series, this is the at-bat to be remembered. This is the hit that began the march. This is the moment that potentially changes the direction of 2010.

• • •

Rays travelling secretary Jeff Ziegler is maybe 45 minutes away from making the call. He has an airplane sitting on a tarmac, and pilots waiting to hear whether they will be in the air at 1 p.m. today to take the Rays home after their final loss of the season.

In the Rangers clubhouse, there are boxes of champagne waiting to be opened and plastic tarps ready to be spread. In Rangers Ballpark, there is a record crowd of 51,746 waiting, hoping and wishing to see the first playoff clincher in Texas history.

On the field, there are two outs in the eighth. John Jaso is on deck and Rangers manager Ron Washington makes the curious decision to bring in closer Neftali Feliz to face Jason Bartlett. Even though the score is tied. Even though Texas has only one more arm in the bullpen.

"I was surprised. I mean, I can understand what their manager is thinking," Jaso said. "But, yeah, I was pretty surprised to see him."

• • •

The first pitch is a 96 mph fastball. Jaso watches it go past for a called strike.

This wasn't necessarily his plan. He wasn't shocked to see a fastball, and the pitch was pretty much in the heart of the strike zone. The problem is he felt his timing was a little bit off as he geared up to swing.

"I was thinking swing all the way, but even if it's a grooved pitch, if I feel my timing is off any little bit early in the count, then I'll take the pitch because I don't want to put a bad swing on it at that point," Jaso said. "Hitting is all about timing, and my timing wasn't on for that pitch."

He has fewer career at-bats than anyone in the Rays lineup in Game 3, but he is also the only hitter on the team with fewer strikeouts than walks. Jaso brings a thinking man's approach to the plate. He draws walks, but that's not necessarily his goal. He works the count, looking for the pitch he can drive.

"I'm biased, but you're going to be hard-pressed to find a rookie in the game that works at-bats the way he does," hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "He never panics if he gets down 0-2 in the count."

• • •

The second pitch is the one Jaso wants. Another 96 mph fastball in the middle of the plate.

His timing is nearly perfect. His swing is graceful and level. His bat connects … and the ball is fouled off.

"I had a pretty healthy cut," Jaso said. "That was a pitch I should have handled."

Jaso is now in an 0-and-2 hole with the go-ahead run on second base.

Yet he refuses to go completely into survival mode. If he's worried about being defensive, he won't get a good swing. So he's focused instead on simply taking the ball back through the middle.

The third pitch is up to 98 mph and a little higher in the strike zone. He fouls it off again.

"I was just happy to get a piece of it," Jaso said.

He has now seen 96, 96 and 98. Jaso is expecting another fastball. Feliz instead throws an 82 mph slider. And the guy who was sent to Durham in April for his eighth minor-league season, keeps his bat back for a fraction of a second to adjust then hits a soft liner up the middle. Peña races around from second base, and the Rays have their first lead in the division series.

"It was hard to adjust, but luckily he got it a little up and over the plate. If it was down in the dirt, I was probably swinging over it and striking out," Jaso said.

• • •

The difference is in perception.

The Rays are still facing a must-win situation in Game 4 today, but you wonder if the Rangers don't feel the same way.

If Texas does not win this afternoon, the Rangers have to get back on a plane and return to Tampa Bay. It isn't quite as dire as what the Rays face, but the idea of trying to avoid a winner-takes-all game at Tropicana Field has to ratchet up the pressure to some degree.

After all, the Rangers had this series won. They dominated the first two games and were a handful of outs away from advancing to the American League Championship Series for the first time in franchise history.

For their first 252/3 innings, the Rangers had given up one home run and a grand total of three runs.

Beginning with Jaso's RBI single, the Rangers surrendered two homers and three more runs in 11/3 innings.

"Jaso's hit jumpstarted the whole group," said executive vice president Andrew Friedman. "You saw a lot more enthusiasm from the bench. The emotions were there for everybody. What it really showed was the character of the group."

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

Rookie John Jaso saves Tampa Bay Rays' season with one swing 10/10/10 [Last modified: Sunday, October 10, 2010 1:23pm]

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