Tampa Bay's hitters woke up just in time, and the Rays get to play another day. John Jaso lined a tiebreaking RBI single in the eighth inning after Carlos Pena delivered a rare clutch playoff hit for Tampa Bay, and the Rays avoided elimination in the AL division series with a 6-3 victory over the Texas Rangers on Saturday. The Rays, the AL's best team in the regular season, cut their deficit in the best-of-five series to 2-1. Game 4 is Sunday.
Limited to a total of one run while losing the first two games at home, Tampa Bay broke loose in the late innings. With the record crowd of 51,746 still buzzing from Ian Kinsler's leadoff homer in the seventh that put the Rangers up and appeared to set the stage for a series-clinching victory 50 seasons in the making, Dan Johnson doubled off the wall with one out in the Rays eighth. Pena followed with an RBI single that made it 2-all.
After B.J. Upton struck out for the fifth time in the series, reliever Darren O'Day was pulled after facing only one batter. Rangers manager Ron Washington made a curious move bringing in All-Star closer Neftali Feliz. The hard-throwing righty set a major league rookie record with 40 saves in the regular season. Feliz walked Jason Bartlett, the No. 9 hitter in Tampa Bay's order, before Jaso's liner to center gave the Rays their first lead in the series. Carl Crawford led off the ninth with a homer to chase Feliz, and Pena added a two-run shot off reliever Dustin Nippert. While Texas is still the only current major league franchise that has never won a postseason series, the Rays are trying to do what's only been done once before.
Of the 16 teams before this year to lose the first two games of a division series at home, only the 2001 New York Yankees have swept the next three games to advance. They did it against Oakland. The AL West champion Rangers, in their 39th season in Texas after 11 seasons as the Washington Senators, still have never won a home playoff game (0-5). They won at Yankee Stadium in their first-ever playoff game in 1996, then lost three straight games in that series before being swept in 1998 and 1999.
Right-hander Wade Davis makes his playoff debut for Tampa Bay as the starter Sunday. The Rangers counter Tommy Hunter, who was 13-4 in the regular season, after they decided before the series even began that Cliff Lee wouldn't pitch Game 4 on three days' rest -- something the ace left-hander has never done.
Tampa Bay hit only .247 for the season, lowest of any playoff team since the 1972 Oakland A's. But that was stellar compared to the .125 mark for the first two games of the series, when the Rays totaled only eight hits. Until Upton's RBI single in the sixth, the Rays hadn't scored in 16 innings and had gone 0 for 14 with runners in scoring position since Evan Longoria's single in the first of the series opener.
The way the Rays had been hitting, it seemed as if the Rangers might have enough when Kinsler pulled a 386-foot shot down the left-field line off Matt Garza. As soon as Kinsler hit the ball, the crowd was on its feet and waving its white rally towels while cheering. In the front row near the Rangers dugout, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan -- the team president who this summer added the title part-owner -- stood and applauded with a wide smile on his face.
Garza was done after allowing one earned run and five hits, but the 2008 ALCS MVP was bailed out by three relievers and the surprising bats. Randy Choate got the only batter he faced before Joaquin Benoit worked 1 2-3 perfect innings for the victory. The only hiccup by the relievers was Rafael Soriano giving up a solo homer to Nelson Cruz in the ninth.
Sundays game will start at noon at the ballpark.