ARLINGTON (AP) – Matt Moore was the ultimate wild card.
Making only his second major league start, Moore looked like an ace in pitching seven innings of two-hit ball Friday as the improbable Tampa Bay Rays opened the real playoffs with a 9-0 victory over the defending AL champion Texas Rangers.
Kelly Shoppach homered twice and drove in five runs, Johnny Damon also homered and Tampa Bay dominated the whole way behind their 22-year-old rookie pitcher.
“I may have looked a little more calm than I was, especially early. The first inning, I had a little bit of nerves and adrenaline going,” Moore said.
“But these guys made it really easy for me, putting up those numbers. Looking up there after the fourth, I think it was 8-0, it was just a matter of throwing strikes and getting out of the innings as fast as possible,” he said.
The Rays played for the first time since their dramatic rally on the final day of the regular season. Since Tampa Bay needed every out simply to overcome Boston’s nine-game lead in the last 3 1/2 weeks to win the wild card, manager Joe Maddon had to focus on getting this far over trying to set up his pitching rotation.
When Maddon had to pick a rested starter for Game 1 of the AL division series rematch, he had no qualms of going with the lefty who made his first start last week at Yankee Stadium and struck out 11 in five scoreless innings.
And just that quickly, Moore has gone from top pitching prospect to postseason phenom. Facing the AL’s top-hitting team, Moore struck out six and walked two.
“He was outstanding,” Maddon said. “Pounding the strike zone right there with all of his pitches gave him and me and us a lot more confidence in the moment. He’s got that kind of composure. …. You can’t be more impressed. What he did tonight was spectacular.”
Rookie Brandon Gomes and Wade Davis both pitched a hitless inning in relief to complete the first shutout in Rays postseason history.
Game 2 is Saturday night. James Shields will start for the Rays against Derek Holland.
Moore, who had thrown only 9 1-3 innings in the majors before this start, took a deep breath before his first pitch. He was smiling by the late innings and greeted by hugs and high-fives in the Rays dugout after he had thrown his last pitch — he threw 98 in all, 62 from strikes.
No pitcher had ever started a postseason opener with only one previous career start until the seemingly unfazed Moore took the mound at Rangers Ballpark.
Having the youngster on the mound led to another important decision for Maddon, who opted to go with the light-hitting Shoppach behind the plate.
The catcher from nearby Fort Worth homered twice off Rangers ace left-hander C.J. Wilson and matched a Rays postseason record with five RBIs.
Texas and Tampa Bay have picked up where they left off last postseason, when the visiting team won every game in their five-game series. That’s the only time that has ever happened in the majors.
The Rangers won that series, helped by Cliff Lee, and then went on to beat the Yankees in the AL championship before losing to San Francisco in five games in the World Series. Texas is only 3-9 in postseason games at Rangers Ballpark, where they had never won a playoff game until last year.
After Wilson hit Ben Zobrist with a pitch in the second, Damon followed with a two-run homer to right that put the Rays ahead to stay. What looked like a high popup by Damon just kept carrying and hit the front-row rail just beyond the eight-foot wall.
Shoppach, a .176 hitter in the regular season, followed with a single and later scored on a hit by Matt Joyce for a 3-0 lead. An inning later, Shoppach hit a 410-foot homer to straightaway center.
Tampa Bay led 8-0 after Damon reached on a two-out error by third baseman Adrian Beltre in the fifth and Shoppach followed with a 415-foot homer to left.
Damon drove in another run with an infield single in the ninth.
Except for Josh Hamilton’s two hits, the Rangers — who hit .283 to lead the majors for the second consecutive season — never solved Moore. They got only one runner to third against him.
After Ian Kinsler drew a two-out walk in the third, Elvis Andrus had an inning-ending lineout to first baseman Casey Kotchman. Hamilton had a leadoff double in the fourth, but was caught too far off the base on Beltre’s grounder to shortstop.
Moore’s big league debut came on Sept. 14, exactly three years after left-hander David Price made his major debut and helped the Rays get to the World Series.
Wilson, another Rangers lefty, had taken over for Lee as their No. 1 starter this season. And he had never lost to the Rays — until Friday, when he gave up eight runs (six earned) and seven hits over five innings.
His worst outing of the season came at the most inopportune time.
On Sept. 6, Wilson had thrown a five-hitter for his first career shutout at Tampa.
While Wilson had known for more than a week he would be starting the playoff opener, the Rays didn’t even know they would be in the playoffs for the third time in four years until Evan Longoria’s homer in the 12th inning against the Yankees late, late Wednesday night only minutes after Boston had lost.
The Rays rallied from a seven-run deficit to beat the Yankees in that thriller. The win eliminated Boston — on Friday, the Red Sox said manager Terry Francona would not return next season.
(Editor’s note: A shameless plug here: If you’re looking for Rangers playoffs gear, the CBSDFW.COM Fan Shop has everything you could ask for.)
NOTES: Moore, an eighth-round draft pick in 2007, was 12-3 with 210 strikeouts over 155 innings in 27 starts combined at Double-A and Triple-A before being recalled by Tampa on Sept. 12. He was eligible for the postseason because he was a roster replacement for Alex Cobb, the right-hander who was put on the disabled list Aug. 7 because of season-ending surgery on his rib cage. … Shields (16-12) allowed only one run in 17 innings while winning both of his starts against Texas this season. He lost twice to Texas in last year’s playoffs. … Holland (16-5) is 10-1 his last 15 starts.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)