Wednesday October 6th, 2010

TAMPA -- Somehow, it's always surprising how quickly momentum can swing in a short series in October. How everything can change with one pitch and one swing. The Rays -- AL East champs, winners of a league-high 96 regular season games -- strutted into Game 1 as the consensus favorite to win their opening-round series against the Rangers. Then a few strange things happened at the Trop on Wednesday afternoon: Tampa Bay's defense, a bedrock of the team, abandoned them. David Price took the mound and looked nothing like the Cy Young candidate he is. And a pair of mid-season acquisitions, Jeff Francoeur and Bengie Molina, got two very big hits for Texas. "We both struggled earlier in the year," Francoeur, who drove in Texas' first run with a second-inning double, said after the game. "All that don't mean crap in October." (RECAP | BOX SCORE)

Suddenly, Jeff Francoeur -- once baseball's Next Big Thing, now just another bearded baseball nomad -- is an October hero. And suddenly, with a 5-1 win over Tampa Bay in front of a sleepy Tropicana Field crowd, the Rangers find themselves in the driver's seat in this division series. With the struggling James Shields slotted to take the mound for Tampa in Game 2, the Rays are in trouble. How much trouble? Teams that have taken Game 1 haven't lost a division series since 2006.

"It's frustrating because we didn't expect to lose the first game," Rays left fielder Carl Crawford said. "We wanted to jump out early and take the series one-nothing, but it's not the end of the world for us."

What did we learn in Game 1? We learned that Cliff Lee, who is now 5-0 with a 1.33 ERA in six career postseason starts, is fast becoming the new Mr. October. If this series goes to the distance, if there's a Game 5 rematch back here in the Trop between the two best left-handers in the American League, the Rangers will have to like their chances. Lee danced his way out of serious trouble in the first inning -- he struck out both Carlos Peña and Rocco Baldelli with the bases loaded on 93 mph fastballs -- then seemed to lull the Tropicana Field crowd into a slumber with his machine-like efficiency. Over seven innings, the cold-blooded left-hander, with a steady diet of low-90s fastballs, struck out 10, and walked none. "Clifford did what Clifford does," said pitching coach Mike Maddux. "He pounded the strike zone. He got quick outs. His ability to stay calm when the going got tough was the big thing."

We also learned that Josh Hamilton, while not 100 percent, is healthy enough to make an impact in these playoffs. The center fielder singled in his first at bat, stole a base in the fifth in which he dove head-first into the bag and came around to score on a Vlad Guerrero's double that same inning. "This time of year," he said, "you can't hold anything back."

We learned that Joe Maddon, who was cranking the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" in his office before the game, is still a maverick. He led his lineup with Jason Bartlett, even though Bartlett hasn't hit leadoff since May. (After the game Maddon hinted that he plans to do so again in Game 2.) He inserted Baldelli in the lineup as DH, even though Baldelli had just five hits all season. Francoeur had his day of redemption, but Baldelli's has yet to come: he had two strikeouts and saw a total of nine pitches in three at bats.

Game 1 was more of a must-win for the Rays than the Rangers when you consider the Game 2 matchup: it's Texas with the edge as Shields and C.J. Wilson are set to take the mound at the Trop on Thursday afternoon. Even though Shields was terrible down the stretch (in his last 11 starts he had a 6.68 ERA and allowed 12 home runs over 61 innings), Maddon has tapped him to start what now what amounts to a must-win for Tampa Bay.

Texas' starter, meanwhile, has been one of the best under-the-radar stories of the year. A closer-turned-starter who is making the first postseason start of his career, Wilson is ready to take the postseason stage. "Being a closer previously, I understand the elements involved and the sort of fluctuations in momentum and all that stuff," he says. "I'm able to say, Hey I've done this before, I've shut down a team before with a one run lead or with a tie game in the late innings."

The only thing that's now clear is that the Rays aren't going to waltz into the ALCS. They know they're in for a long series. "Everyone talks about Cliff Lee," says Crawford. "But Wilson's just as tough. He throws harder. He has an awkward delivery that's hard to pick up. It's going to be a battle. But we always knew it was going to be a battle."

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