In their biggest game of the year, the Rays' biggest stars shone brightest. David Price reversed a career-long trend of struggling against the Rangers and scattered seven hits over the course of a 118-pitch complete game, while Evan Longoria bashed three hits, including a pivotal two-run homer, to lead Tampa Bay to a 5-2 win and secure the AL's second wild-card spot. Having played 163 games this season, the Rays will now travel to Cleveland to face the Indians in the AL Wild Card Game on Wednesday.
Price, last year's AL Cy Young winner, came in with a 5.67 ERA in 11 career starts against Texas, including three in the 2010 and 2011 postseasons. He did not have his best stuff on Monday, generating just four swings and misses all night, and he set the Rangers down in order just twice (in the fourth and the seventh innings). He helped himself with pickoffs of Elvis Andrus in the first and Ian Kinsler in the third, and early in the game he appeared to benefit from home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg's wide strike zone as well. The Rangers hitters who had faced Price before came in with a .329/.387/.514 line against him, and none had had more success than Nelson Cruz (9-for-21 with three homers). But Price held the freshly-activated, but obviously rusty, Cruz to an 0-for-4 night, including a groundout for the final out of the game.
Price benefited from the fact that he held a lead every time he took the mound in Arlington on Monday night. The Rays jumped all over Texas starter Martin Perez right away, with their first four hitters reaching base on three singles and a walk. One run was all that Tampa Bay could score in the top of the first (DH Delmon Young's sacrifice fly scored right fielder Wil Myers) because leadoff hitter Desmond Jennings -- making his first start since Sept. 22 due to a mild hamstring strain -- was erased trying to stretch a single into a double.
But the Rays increased their lead to 3-0 in the top of the third, when Jennings drew a leadoff walk, and two batters later, Longoria connected with a 94 mph first-pitch fastball from Perez for a two-run homer:
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For Longoria, it was the third straight year in which he's homered in the regular season's last game: In 2011, he hit two homers in Game 162 to help Tampa Bay beat the Yankees and sneak into the playoffs as the AL wild card; in '12 he hit three home runs in Game 162, though the Rays missed the playoffs.
The Rangers got one run back against Price in the bottom of the third, and answered another Tampa Bay run in the sixth with one of their own in the bottom half to make it a 4-2 game. The Rays appeared ready to expand the lead to 5-2 in the top of the seventh when, with two on and two out, Young hit a dying quail into center field that Leonys Martin trapped but successfully sold as a catch. Even with two extra umpires on hand in the outfield, the call -- which would have been corrected under the forthcoming instant replay rules -- was clearly botched. Here's a GIF of the play from SB Nation:
After Price put Texas down 1-2-3 in the seventh, he appeared to be done for the night, particularly with a warmed-up Joel Peralta waiting in the bullpen. But with the left-handed Martin due to lead off the bottom of the eighth, manager Joe Maddon left his ace in. Price retired Martin on a soft liner to second baseman Ben Zobrist, and then stayed in the game despite yielding a first-pitch double to Kinsler immediately afterward. In fact, Price made his best defensive play of the night for the second out of the inning, with a glove flip to first to nab Andrus, who was trying to bunt for a base hit:
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Price came back out for the ninth and set the Rangers down in order. He needed just 32 pitches to get through the last three frames, compared to 47 for the first three and 39 for the middle three. His performance was exactly what Tampa Bay's tired bullpen needed in advance of Wednesday's win-or-go-home game in Cleveland. Both set-up man Peralta -- the AL leader in appearances with 80 -- and closer Fernando Rodney got the night off after each had been needed to get the final four outs of a 7-6 win over the Blue Jays on Sunday, with the former throwing 20 pitches, the latter 33.
Price continued the roll that he has been on since returning from a triceps strain in early July. In his 18 starts since coming off the DL -- four of which have been complete games, with another nine-inning effort in an extra-inning game as well -- he has a 2.53 ERA with 103 strikeouts and just 13 walks in 131 2/3 innings. He gave up just eight homers over that span, as many as he gave up in 55 innings before he went on the DL in mid-May.
The victory was the Rays 14th in their last 19 games, following a 3-10 skid in late August and early September. They're back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and for the fourth time in the last six seasons. They will now travel to Cleveland, the third city they have visited in the last four days, to face the Indians, with Alex Cobb starting on four days' rest. The right-hander has allowed just three runs and 14 hits over his last 22 1/3 innings, which includes three starts against the Rangers, Orioles and Yankees. Rookie Danny Salazar will get the start for Cleveland, and the winner will travel to Boston to face the Red Sox in Fenway Park on Friday in the opening game of the Division Series.
As for Texas, the loss snapped both its seven-game winning streak and its three-year playoff run. The Rangers entered September atop the AL West, but lost 15 of 20 their next 20 games. Despite a mad scramble at the end, they just couldn't beat the traffic in the wild-card race.
What remains to be seen is whether manager Ron Washington, whose job was rumored to be in jeopardy during the skid, keeps the position he's held for seven years, the last four of which have seen the team win at least 90 games. It's not in his favor that Texas, despite having won seven straight just to force the tiebreaker against Tampa Bay, lost a do-or-die game for the third straight season.