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Game 5 ALDS loss could bring huge offseason changes to Rays

Something kind of strange and unexpected happened late in Game 2 of the Rays-Rangers division series in St. Petersburg. As if all hope were lost with their team on the verge of falling 0-2 and headed to Texas, the Rays faithful filled cavernous Tropicana Field with a full-throated chant of "CAR-L CRAW-FORD... CAR-L CRAW-FORD..."

"I heard them," Evan Longoria said of the home crowd's serenading of Crawford, in what very much looked like the free-agent-to-be's final game at the Trop as a Ray. "Yeah, it's a great tribute to Carl," added Longoria after his team's 6-0 loss. "But I'm out there thinking, Wait a minute here. This isn't over. We're going to bring this back home."

You know what happened next. Two days later, the Rays lineup came back to life and rallied to win Game 3; the next day, Longoria homered and hit two doubles to power Tampa to a Game 4 win; and the Rays had done precisely what the Longoria said they would: improbably, they brought the series back to Trop.

And so here we are, the stage set for baseball's first opening-round, winner-take-all game in five Octobers. What's been a gripping opening round of baseball ends tonight with a rematch of the first-round's marquee pitching matchup, Cliff Lee vs. David Price. Tonight's Game 5 rumble pits a pair of talented-rich, well-run teams with much on the line: one franchise trying desperately to finally cut ties with a sorry October past, the other hoping to make a run deep into the postseason before they must confront a very uncertain future.

For Nolan Ryan's Rangers, this October is about becoming relevant. "The fans here, they've been waiting a long time for something to cheer about," Ryan said one evening in Arlington earlier this season. Ryan recalled an event a few years back around when he was taking over the team as president. Former Rangers owner President George W. Bush shook his hand and when the topic of running the losing franchise came up, W. said, half-jokingly, "And why would you want to do that?"

Over this past weekend deep in the heart of Texas, football, for once, wasn't on the minds of the giddy record crowds that packed the Ballpark, ready to celebrate baseball for the first time in October. Under clear blue skies, the fans in the stands were rocking, wearing the blue and red claw and antler T-shirts; suddenly anything seemed possible for the only franchise that has never even won a postseason series. Now, though, all that love and hope from the long-suffering faithful would go up in smoke with the completion of a Texas-sized collapse tonight.

With new ownership and a staggering TV deal (reportedly $3 billion) now in place, the Rangers are built to be an American League superpower for years to come. But for a team with Texas' sad postseason history, to flame out like this -- the 2010 Rangers would be the first team since the 2001 A's to blow a 2-0 lead after winning the first two games on the road -- would simply be devastating. "We're not really worried about what the franchise has accomplished, what's happened in the past," Ian Kinsler insisted on Monday. "It really has no bearing on what we're doing right now. We're just trying to win a game and move on."

The stakes for Tampa? Even higher. The end of the Rays this October will be the end of the Rays as we know them. There is little chance that the All-Star trio of Crawford, Carlos Peña and Rafael Soriano --- all are eligible to become free agents at season's end --- will stay in St. Pete. Matt Garza and B.J. Upton, due hefty raises through salary arbitration, may be gone, too. Owner Stu Sternberg, frustrated that he doesn't have a new stadium and more fans, has already said that the 2011 payroll will be slashed from over $70 million to closer to $50 million.

That's not to say that the Rays will be punting on 2011. It's possible that Jeremy Hellickson emerges as an elite starter and Desmond Jennings is so good so soon that the faithful are chanting his name next season. But it's just as likely that in a few years we'll look back at the core of players the Rays had and wonder how they didn't win more with the talent on their roster.

"The truth is, no one knows what's going to happen after this season," Longoria said last week. "There's probably going to be some changes. We're probably not going to have some of the guys we have here. So there is definitely a sense of urgency to win with this group of guys."

The Rangers have the edge in Game 5 with their Mr. October, Cliff Lee, taking the mound, but really there's only one certainty tonight: One team will move on to face the New York Yankees. For the other, a long, long offseason awaits.

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