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Nobody said the Rays' make it easy in the playoffs

B.J. Upton celebrates with Evan Longoria after Longoria’s three-run home run against the Texas Rangers in the seventh inning Saturday. It closed the gap to 7-6, but it wasn’t enough.

Associated Press

B.J. Upton celebrates with Evan Longoria after Longoria’s three-run home run against the Texas Rangers in the seventh inning Saturday. It closed the gap to 7-6, but it wasn’t enough.

ARLINGTON, Texas — August was a month of concern, and September was 30 days of panic. Did you really think the Rays would allow you to breathe easier in October?

C'mon, these guys don't play that way. The Rangers? They've had a 12-game winning streak. The Tigers have, too. The Rays are lucky if they go 12 days without a crisis.

It is, in part, what you love about this team. It is the Rays' pluck. It is their lack of fear. It is the way they play baseball on a high wire above a pool of sharks.

So, yes, you probably should have expected that something would go wrong for the Rays in Game 2 of the American League Division Series on Saturday. It is just their way.

In this case, it was the end of a seasonlong, six-game winning streak, the implosion of an All-Star pitcher and the reminder that the end is never far away in baseball's postseason.

Just like that, an overwhelming advantage in the series was wiped away by one 8-6 loss. The Rays no longer have momentum. They no longer have a 1-0 series lead with an ace still up their sleeve. They no longer have Texas sweating from more than just the heat.

On the other hand, a new toy dog was found for the top of the dugout.

Which is what you should be focused on this morning. These guys are too young to be worried. They're too goofy to be scared.

In one part of the clubhouse, their manager spent part of the afternoon trying to get his not-quite-long-enough hair in a ponytail to fulfill an earlier promise that he would go hippie-fied if his team reached the postseason.

In another part of the clubhouse, Evan Longoria was producing a beast-sized plastic dog to protect David Price's toy mascot that had been pilfered from atop the dugout during Game 1.

Tell me, do you think these guys know how to panic?

Granted, there is reason for a bit of apprehension. The Rays had essentially stolen a game from the Rangers on Friday night when they beat Texas ace C.J. Wilson with a rookie on the mound. And now, Texas has returned the favor by beating James Shields in Game 2.

So where does that leave the series?

Probably heading for a Wilson-Shields finale in Game 5.

The Rays needed all 162 games of the regular season to finish ahead of the Red Sox for the American League wild card, so what makes you think they won't need to go the distance if they plan on beating the West Division champion Rangers in this division series?

If you are trying to forecast results — and I'm not sure anyone saw the Rays beating Wilson 9-0 in Game 1, or Shields hitting two batters and throwing two wild pitches in the same inning of Game 2 — then you'd probably like Tampa Bay's chances with Price on the mound for Game 3 at Tropicana Field on Monday night.

But are you willing to bet on it this morning?

This is what has made this season so remarkable in Tampa Bay. It is what has made following this team so exhilarating and exhausting. Just when you think you have the Rays figured out, a pitcher with pinpoint control has arguably the most sloppy inning of his career.

Of course, Shields was not helped by an apparently blown call by home plate umpire Kerwin Danley in that fateful fourth inning, leading to an extra two runs for the Rangers. The Rangers had the bases loaded when David Murphy hit a dribbler in front of the plate that would have been the second out, but Danley ruled the ball was foul.

I don't fault Danley for missing the call — that's part of the game — but I do have to wonder how five other umpires failed to intervene and make sure the call was correct.

"He said the ball hit the batter and it just dribbled out in front of the plate," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who went on the field for an explanation. "(Danley) may have called it a little quickly, I don't know."

Even so, the Rays stumbled enough themselves to lose the game. Shields was not sharp, and the bullpen did not back him up very well.

"We're going to go back home (with the series tied) 1-1," Maddon said, "and I'm really pleased with our guys."

So the series is tied, and the season is now down to a best-of-three scenario.

Did you really expect anything different from these guys?

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]

Nobody said the Rays' make it easy in the playoffs 10/01/11 [Last modified: Sunday, October 2, 2011 1:43pm]
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