ARLINGTON (AP) – Joe Maddon and the Tampa Bay Rays have been in playoff mode for about three weeks.
Now comes the real postseason after finally taking over and winning the AL wild card in their last at-bat of their last game of the regular season.
“That is so unthinkable to do what we did,” said Maddon, whose team had to come back from a nine-game deficit in the final month and then trailed by seven runs in the final game. “We’ve been doing this to his mental level since Sept. 9 (at Boston).”
A tired Tampa Bay team plays the opener Friday in a division series rematch against the defending AL champion Texas Rangers.
Texas won its last six games and 14 of 16 to set a franchise record with 96 victories, just enough to earn the same home-field advantage that meant absolutely nothing when the two teams played last October.
The visitor won all five games when the Rangers and Rays met in the last year’s playoffs. That had never happened in the majors.
“You’re talking about two teams that don’t really care where they play,” Rangers designated hitter Michael Young said.
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 when Evan Longoria homered leading off the 12th inning late, late Wednesday night against the AL East champion Yankees.
That came 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.”
Left-hander C.J. Wilson (16-7) has known for more than a week that he would be starting the playoff opener for Texas. He took over as the Rangers’ No. 1 starter after Cliff Lee, who beat the Rays twice in the division series at Tampa last year, returned to Philadelphia in free agency last winter.
Because the Rays had to basically treat every game over the past month like an elimination game, they didn’t have the luxury of lining up their rotation for the playoffs. They turn to 22-year-old rookie left-hander Matt Moore.
“Going down the stretch, C.J. has been our lead horse from the beginning. And he hasn’t disappointed,” manager Ron Washington said. “I don’t think C.J. changed his way of doing things. He never lacked confidence. … He’s our guy that we are depending on to get us on the right footing to get started.”
Wilson had a five-hitter for his first career shutout Sept. 6 against the Rays. He pitched 6 1-3 scoreless innings in Game 2 last postseason at Tampa.
Moore has pitched only 9 1-3 innings in three major league appearances, none against Texas. He struck out 11 in five scoreless innings at Yankee Stadium in his first major league start last week.
“I don’t think we have qualms about doing anything,” Maddon said about the possibility of starting the rookie before the announcement was made later.
Derek Holland (16-5), who is 10-1 with a 2.77 ERA over his last 15 starts, goes for Texas against James Shields (16-12) in Game 2 on Saturday night. Shields lost twice to Lee last postseason, but has allowed only one earned run in 17 innings against Texas this season.
Tampa Bay didn’t have an organized workout after getting to Texas late Thursday.
The Rangers got to fly home from Los Angeles rather than all the way across the country to Yankee Stadium after a 3-1 win over the Angels on Wednesday night when Mike Napoli homered twice for the second game in a row against his former team.
Napoli and All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre were the primary additions to the Rangers this season. Along with leadoff hitter Ian Kinsler (who also stole 30 bases), the Rangers had three 30-homer players for the first time since Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez in 1999.
Tampa Bay purged many of its highest-paid players last winter, including Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford, now with the Red Sox. The Rays also let go of pitchers like starter Matt Garza, closer Rafael Soriano and relievers Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit.
Yet, the Rays still came back from being nine games back in the wild-card standings Sept. 3. They caught up with the Red Sox this week, and finally passed them in a matter of minutes on the final night of the regular season.
“I actually feel like this was a better comeback,” said Johnny Damon, one of the Tampa newcomers this season who was 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 had to sit down by myself and at least try to soak some of it in, realize what had just happened,” Longoria said of the postgame frenzy after his playoffs-clinching homer. “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.”
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