Commentary

Cliff Lee, Rangers take control

Texas breaks long postseason drought, defeats Tampa Bay 5-1 in ALDS opener

Updated: October 6, 2010, 9:13 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Texas Rangers' postseason history might be brief, but it's also undistinguished. It consists of nine losses in 10 playoff games in the late 1990s, during which the Rangers were outscored 35-12 by Joe Torre's burgeoning dynasty in the Bronx.

The Rangers found the experience so distasteful, they waited 11 years to try again.

Before Texas met Tampa Bay on Wednesday in Game 1 of the 2010 American League Division Series, manager Ron Washington gathered his players in the clubhouse and delivered a little sermon on the importance of deep breaths and perspective. The Rangers had played 162 games to reach this point, and their manager wanted them to enjoy themselves.

"Wash had a little five-minute meeting and told us, 'Hey, the hard work is over. You've gotten where you wanted to be. You've done what you needed to do,'" Rangers right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. "I think there are a lot of young guys on this team who at the end of the day don't give a crap about the record back in 1999. We came out with that mindset to have fun today.''

One game doesn't make a series, of course. But the Rangers turned history on its side Wednesday afternoon. And in the process, they gave the distinct impression they might be hanging around a while this month.

Cliff Lee pitched like the guy who cut a swath through the 2009 postseason in Philadelphia, catcher Bengie Molina had a big day in the No. 9 spot in the order and the Rangers rolled Tampa Bay 5-1 at Tropicana Field to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series. They also provided a lesson in the danger of assuming August and September questions will linger into October.

Everybody knows the Rangers are formidable in the first six spots in the order, but they had a few nagging questions entering this series: Were Lee's August back problems completely behind him, to the point that he could cut it loose and carve up the strike zone to the best of his ability? Would MVP front-runner Josh Hamilton be ready to go after missing most of September with two fractured ribs? And could a Texas lineup known for slugging at home do enough damage to steal an early game on the road?

Finally, was Texas up to the challenge of beating a team from baseball's most competitive division, the AL East? The Rangers posted a 90-72 record to win their division by nine games but went 14-4 versus the National League, 32-24 against the AL West and 22-11 versus the non-Twins portion of the AL Central.

If Lee's performance Wednesday was any indication, he'll be spending a decent chunk of October pumping up his free-agent market value. He struck out 10 and didn't allow a walk, survived a bases-loaded jam in the first inning, and shut down the Rays on 104 pitches (76 strikes) in seven neat-and-tidy innings.

He appeared to receive a break in the first when umpire Tim Welke ruled that an inside 2-1 pitch hit Carlos Pena's bat for a strike. Instead of being up 3-1 in the count with the bases loaded, Pena was even at 2-2. Lee promptly recovered, and struck out Pena and Rocco Baldelli to end the threat.

"He's such a competitor,'' Francoeur said. "He got out of that inning, and we came back and put two runs on the board, and you could tell from his face in the dugout. He had this look on his face and this smile like, 'Boys, this thing is over.' You knew he was feeling it by then. He knew he had his stuff.''

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
J. Meric/Getty ImagesAfter escaping an early jam, Cliff Lee was all business, striking out 10 and walking none over seven innings.

If you put any stock in the value of postseason experience, the Rays had a distinct advantage coming into this series. Twelve of the 15 players on Tampa Bay's postseason roster were around when the Rays went to the World Series in 2008, and three more -- Chad Qualls, Randy Choate and Kelly Shoppach -- have been to the playoffs with other clubs.

The Texas roster, in contrast, features only five players with postseason experience. The lists consists of Vladimir Guerrero, Lee, Francoeur, Molina and Darren Oliver, who was part of the 1996 Texas rotation that also included John Burkett, Ken Hill and Bobby Witt.

"If you have postseason experience, that can definitely help your team out,'' third baseman Michael Young said. "But one thing we're hanging on is, we have a lot of hard-fought game experience. We had a lot of one-run games and hard-fought games, and we found a way to pull away in the majority of those. That's what we're going to hang our hat on. We seem to relish the moment in those games.''

The Rangers won 30 one-run games during the regular season -- second most in the majors behind Minnesota -- but made their lives a little easier in this one with their power and ability to hit the hard stuff. Texas led the majors with a .297 batting average against fastballs during the regular season and amassed eight of its nine hits against David Price's fastball in the series opener. That included a big RBI double by Francoeur in the second inning, a 438-foot solo homer by Nelson Cruz on a 3-0 pitch in the third and a solo shot by Molina in the fourth.

"Aggressive in the zone -- that's our mentality,'' Young said. "There's a big difference between being aggressive and hacking, and we're not a hacking team. If you throw a pitch we feel like we can do some damage on, we want to make sure we take a shot at it. But we've been really good at not expanding the zone this year.''

The Rays, meanwhile, bore little resemblance to the team that won 96 games and outlasted the Yankees and Red Sox in the East. They failed to produce a clutch hit in the first two innings against Lee, made two errors in the field and received a less-than-optimal performance from Price, their ace pitcher and a leading AL Cy Young candidate.

"I wasn't at my best today, and it's tough to swallow,'' Price said in a quiet Tampa clubhouse after the game. "It wasn't a nerve-wracking game for me. I wasn't nervous when I came to the field or when I went out there to warm up or I went out there for the first pitch. I felt good. I felt in control. I just didn't have it today.''

So now the Rays hand the ball to James Shields, who allowed a whopping 246 hits and posted a 5.18 regular-season ERA, in the hopes they won't be down two games to none heading back to Arlington. The Rangers are 51-30 in their home park, so if they can steal Game 2 behind C.J. Wilson, there's a distinct possibility this series will not be returning to Florida.

"We're down one game,'' Price said. "That's it. We'll come in tomorrow and play our music in the locker room and play our music in the weight room, and play Game 2 and hopefully come away with a win.''

Five-game postseason series aren't very forgiving. The Rays better muster a sense of urgency -- and soon -- unless they want to be listening to a funeral dirge by the weekend.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer