Game Time: Friday September 30, 5:07pm EST
Starting Pitchers: Rays-Matt Moore | Rangers-CJ Wilson
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — The Texas Rangers had to win their last six games in the regular season to earn home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs this time.
Just to get into the postseason, Tampa Bay had to overcome a nine-game deficit in the final month and a seven-run deficit in the final game.
“Right now there’s nothing that we don’t think that we can’t do. … We believe,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said Thursday, a day before the opener of a rematch of last year’s AL division series. “We definitely have a strong belief system going on right now, regardless of how we can look at these other teams that we have to play, and maybe there’s areas that they appear to be stronger than we, and probably are.”
A tired Tampa Bay team arrived last Thursday at Rangers Ballpark, where the defending AL champion Rangers were already working out after getting to fly home from Los Angeles rather than having to go to Yankee Stadium.
Scrambling for a rested starter, the Rays will turn to rookie Matt Moore in Game 1. The 22-year-old lefty was among baseball’s top prospects in the minors, and showed why last week in his first start in the majors — five scoreless innings at Yankee Stadium, with 11 strikeouts.
Moore has pitched only three times in the big leagues, for a total of 9 1/3 innings. But he’ll have this advantage: Texas hitters have never faced him.
When the Rangers and Rays met in the playoffs last season, the visiting team won every game. That’s the only time that has ever happened in the major leagues.
“You’re talking about two teams that don’t really care where they play,” Rangers designated hitter Michael Young said. “It should be a fun series. You’re talking about two teams that are playing extremely well heading into the postseason.”
Game 1 is Friday, when C.J. Wilson (16-7) pitches for the Rangers, who have won 14 of 16 games and set a franchise record with 96 victories. Wilson has known for more than a week that he’d be starting the playoff opener, and fellow left-hander Derek Holland (16-5) is set to start Game 2 on Saturday night.
Maddon’s team went 16-8 while having to play every day like an elimination game for the past few weeks.
While the only question for the Rangers over the last few days was whether they’d hold off Detroit for the American League’s second-best mark, Tampa Bay finally clinched its playoff spot in a wild and exhilarating end to the regular season.
Evan Longoria homered leading off the 12th inning late, late Wednesday night against the Yankees only minutes after Boston had given up two ninth-inning runs in a loss at Baltimore.
“We’ve just got to ride this high that we’re on,” Longoria said. “I don’t think there’s any better push or kind of momentum that you can have than what we’re coming off of. … We’ve been written off plenty of times. That’s what makes us dangerous, the fact that we believe in ourselves no matter what’s said on the outside.”
Johnny Damon, one of the many different faces for these Rays after they purged their highest-priced players last winter, said everyone was shocked at some point Wednesday night and hoping for Baltimore to force at least a wild-card playoff game for the Rays against Boston.
There was no need for an extra game Thursday, and the Rays didn’t have an on-field workout after getting to Texas.
Damon was also part of the 2004 Red Sox team that overcame a 3-0 deficit to the Yankees in the AL championship series and then won the World Series in a four-game sweep.
“I actually feel like this was a better comeback,” Damon said.
The Rays were nine games back in the wild-card standings Sept. 3. They caught up with Boston this week, and finally passed the Red Sox in a matter of minutes on the final night of the regular season.
Among the players gone from last year’s Tampa Bay team are Jason Bartlett, who hit .400 in the AL division series, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford, now with the Red Sox. The departed pitchers include starter Matt Garza, closer Rafael Soriano and relievers Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit.
The most significant change for the Rangers since a year ago is not having Cliff Lee, who left in free agency to return to Philadelphia after helping Texas get to its first World Series. The ace left-hander won the opener and clinching games of the division series at Tampa against James Shields.
But Texas bulked up its offense with the additions of All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre and catcher-first baseman Mike Napoli, who is coming off consecutive two-homer games against the Angels. Beltre, Napoli and Ian Kinsler give the Rangers three 30-homer players for the first time since 1999 (Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez).
With Lee gone, Wilson has taken over as the Rangers’ ace and is one of three lefty starters in the four-man postseason rotation. He won both of his starts against the Rays this season, including a five-hitter for his first career shutout Sept. 6. He threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings in Game 2 last October.
“There is exciting baseball ahead. We more or less played the same type of game. We are very aggressive. We pitch, we do whatever the game asks us to do,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “And for the Tampa Bay Rays to be back here, they had to do the same thing.”
Longoria, who also had a three-run homer in the late comeback, said he had to take a few minutes during the postgame celebration Wednesday night to take in what was happening.
“I had to sit down by myself and at least try to soak some of it in, realize what had just happened,” he said. “But it’s a weird feeling being back here, being back in Texas and having another chance at it, what we failed at last year.”