Rangers shoot for 2-0 series lead
The Texas Rangers are the only team in the majors never to win a playoff series, but if Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Rays is any indication, that may be about to change.
The American League West champions can return home with a 2-0 lead in their division series if they capture Thursday afternoon's game (2:30 pm ET) at Tropicana Field, where the Rays hope struggling starter James Shields will help them avoid a daunting deficit.
The Rangers' limited post-season history had been almost entirely negative before Wednesday, when ace Cliff Lee shut down the Rays for seven innings in a 5-1 victory.
The win was only the franchise's second in the playoffs, and it snapped a nine-game post-season losing streak that came entirely against the New York Yankees in the 1990s.
"I guess whatever happens from this point on will be history in Texas Rangers folklore," manager Ron Washington said. "I'm just happy my guys were relaxed and they were able to go out there and play the type of game that we know we can play."
Nelson Cruz and Bengie Molina homered for Texas, with Molina totalling three hits and two RBIs to bolster a strong postseason resume. The catcher won a World Series with the Angels in 2002 and hit three homers in the 2005 division series to help Los Angeles beat the Yankees.
The Rays, meanwhile, were limited to four singles and two extra-base hits - both by Ben Zobrist, who homered in the seventh inning.
The AL East champions' offence was also sluggish down the stretch, averaging 2.0 runs and getting shut out three times in the final eight games. All of those were without star third baseman Evan Longoria, who made an error and went 1 for 4 in his return from a quadriceps injury Wednesday.
"A lot of guys had pretty good at-bats, so I'm really not discouraged," manager Joe Maddon said. "I'm actually encouraged. ... I'm looking for a carryover into (Thursday)."
If they can't get more production from their line-up, the Rays need Shields (13-15, 5.18 ERA) to quickly rebound from a surprisingly poor season.
Shields was the opening day starter, but he allowed an AL-high 34 homers while setting career highs in losses and ERA. The right-hander went 0-4 with a 7.59 ERA in his final six starts.
"The best attribute for a baseball player is amnesia," Shields said. "I feel really good right now. I feel confident in my stuff, I feel confident in what I'm doing out there."
Maddon may have tabbed Shields as the Game 2 starter due to his strong performance for the Rays in the 2008 playoffs.
Shields went 2-2 with a 2.88 ERA in four post-season starts, winning Game 1 of the division series against Chicago and beating Philadelphia with 5 2-3 shutout innings in Game 2 of the World Series.
"Having the experience of going through that in 2008 is definitely going to help me out and help my confidence out," Shields said.
Not only does Texas' C.J. Wilson (15-8, 3.35) lack any playoff experience, but also this was his first full season as a starter in the majors.
The former closer was a revelation for the Rangers, leading the team in wins, innings and ERA among starters.
"When things go according to plan, everybody looks smart," Wilson said. "I guess things went according to plan with the transition to starting. So everything is good."
Wilson, however, has gone 1-3 with a 5.85 ERA since the start of September, prompting questions about his increased workload. Wilson's 204 innings are 130 more than he threw in 2009.
The left-hander struggled in his lone start against the Rays this year, walking four and allowing five runs - three earned - in five innings, although he got plenty of run support in a 9-6 victory June 4 in Arlington.