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Nobody said the Rays would 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 heartburn, 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 can't go 12 days without DEFCON alerts.

"This team is going to continue playing hard until our last breath," said third baseman Evan Longoria. "We've had our backs up against the wall. We know what it feels like.

"For us, this is fun."

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.

"I don't know that there is a par for our course," said catcher Kelly Shoppach. "We've been all over the place all year. This is nothing new."

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 probably 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 a promise that he would go hippie-fied if his team reached the postseason.

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

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

"We are at the point where we believe we can always come back," manager Joe Maddon said. "And that's a great feeling to have."

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 their division series?

"We've played pretty good baseball the past two days," said rightfielder Matt Joyce. "We put up a bunch of runs, which I don't think anybody expected us to do. We've gone toe-to-toe with them, and we knew they're a great baseball team.

"Obviously we would have liked to have held on and be up 2-0, but we're pretty happy where we're at."

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 evening.

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 hits two batters in one inning for the first time in his big-league career.

Of course, Shields was not helped by what appeared to be a blown foul-ball call by home plate umpire Kerwin Danley in that fateful fourth inning, leading to an extra two runs for Texas.

Still, there was not a lot of complaining in the Rays' clubhouse.

Facing a nine-game deficit in the pennant race on Sept. 4 helps a team understand the true meaning of urgency. Having a season potentially come down to one last strike in the 162nd game tends to help your perspective.

"This is probably our, what, 20th playoff game we've had already this year," Maddon said. "I am really proud of the guys, the way they are handling this moment."

This may not have been a typical season, but then again, this team isn't typical, either.

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

Nobody said the Rays would make it easy in the playoffs

10/02/11 [Last modified: Sunday, October 2, 2011 1:31am]
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