ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays didn't start the playoffs the way they wanted to Wednesday, not with David Price pitching poorly, the defense askew and the offense again unproductive in a 5-1 loss.
And as they go into Game 2 against the Rangers this afternoon, they acknowledge that without a better effort they could be all but done.
"This is a must win," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "It's tough to win on the road, let alone being in a playoff atmosphere and winning on the road. So (today) is the biggest game of the year."
There is more of a margin than that, of course — the Rangers would need to win another game, with the American League division series shifting to Texas for the weekend — but not much: Of the 45 teams that lost the opener of a best-of-five postseason series at home, only 12 have come back to win. And only one, the 2001 Yankees, did so after losing the first two games at home.
Manager Joe Maddon wouldn't put any more importance on today's game, saying he wants the Rays to treat it like any other, but he is expected to make some lineup changes, such as sitting down struggling Carlos Peña against tough lefty C.J. Wilson, with Ben Zobrist moving to first. Also, there is some question if Rocco Baldelli will be able to play.
The Rays will put the ball, and their hopes, in the right hand of James Shields, the struggling veteran determined to prove his Big Game nickname is more applicable than his big-number (13-15, 5.18) stat line.
"This is the time," Shields said. "The team needs me. This is definitely the game they need me to go out and pitch my game, and I definitely have enough confidence right now to be able to do that. I want the ball. I thrive to be in this type of situation. I've done that ever since I got called up to the big leagues."
There was discussion over where the Rays would slot Shields into the rotation, and they chose Game 2 primarily so he would pitch in the more-friendly confines of the Trop than homer-happy Texas.
But now the Rays say they set it up exactly for this potential scenario, needing, well, a big game from Big Game.
"Definitely, it wouldn't be a bad time for him to live up to that name," said leftfielder Carl Crawford, who could be playing his final home game as a Ray today.
"It's almost like he sees a shot at redemption, though that may be a bit dramatic," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "But it's one of those things where one good start in the postseason can erase a lot of regular-season memories and woes."
Shields can't do it alone — though Roy Halladay pretty much did for the Phillies on Wednesday night — and the rest of the Rays need to step up, too.
The game they played before a national television audience and a soldout plaid-wearing crowd of 35,474 was nothing like what they did to win 96 games — except for maybe the minimal offense.
Longoria said he thought they were "a little bit tight" and hoped they addressed that today. Shields said they "need to focus on playing our game a little bit better."
Price, a 19-game winner, Cy Young candidate and Sports Illustrated cover boy, wasn't sharp in his first postseason start, and it showed early as he allowed runs in four of the first five innings. The nine hits he allowed were his second most of the season, and the two home runs (Nelson Cruz and Bengie Molina) were his most in a game since May.
"Very frustrating," Price said.
The defense wasn't crisp, with two errors on throws that Peña didn't scoop, and there were a few other plays that weren't made, as balls dropped in or scooted by.
"We didn't play our game on defense," Maddon said.
And the offense wasn't opportunistic, which is the worst thing to be against Cliff Lee, who doesn't give a team many chances. So it wasn't a good sign when the Rays wasted a prime one in the first inning, loading the bases with three singles — though a questionable foul-ball call on Peña by home-plate umpire Tim Welke factored in ("The wrong call," Peña said), as did a conservative decision by third-base coach Tom Foley to hold up Jason Bartlett at third and not try to score from second on Longoria's single.
And they wasted another opportunity in the second after a Zobrist leadoff double.
"Kind of a no-brainer. You get a chance to score runs off (Lee), you've got to capitalize," catcher Kelly Shoppach said.
The Rays talked about their resiliency, about how they bounced back after losing the first two games of a big series in New York last month, about how despite being frustrated and disappointed they remain confident they could rebound, starting with Shields.
"We've got to use exactly what got us here," Peña said. "We've gone this far, and we're going to go down or all the way to the World Series and win it with the guys that got us here. … I'm looking forward to (today). I like our chances."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]sptimes.com.