Rangers dominating performance in ALDS could mean end of Rays

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The rout was on when the chants rained down at the Trop. "Re-Play! Re-Play! Re-Play!" the faithful cried. It was hopeless, of course. There was still baseball to be played in Game 2 of the Division Series between the Rays and the Rangers, but even by then, with their lifeless team down 5-0 in the fifth inning, everyone in the ballpark, deep down, had to know: the game -- and probably the series -- was over.

Moments earlier, Michael Young held up on a 2-2 check swing --- that's what first base umpire Jerry Meals ruled, anyway. (Replays, flashed on screens all around the stadium, indicated otherwise. "I felt he went," the pitcher, James Shields, would later say.") On the next pitch, Young saw the pitch he's been waiting 10 seasons for: a 94 mph sinker that didn't sink, a pitch he turned into a 431-foot, three-run dinger that soared high and bounced off the black windows of The Batter's Eye restaurant above centerfield. Rays manager Joe Maddon argued the call, then was thrown out. And then, the futile chants that could be heard all the way in the commissioner's Park Avenue offices echoed across the crumbling dome: "Re-Play! Re-Play! Re-Play!"

"That was the turning point," said Evan Longoria of Young's home run, his first postseason hit in 10 major league seasons. "A 5-0 game is very different than a 2-0 game in this ballpark. Obviously."

There were more chants in the late innings, chants from the lower outfield seats for Carl Crawford, the Rays superstar and free agent-to-be who may have just played his last game in the Trop. "Yeah, I heard them," the left fielder said in front of his locker after the game. Crawford thought about tipping his cap but "didn't want to because I hope it's not my last game. I tried not to think about it."

But it was impossible not to. The Rays' 6-0 loss to the Rangers did feel like the end of something, perhaps the end of the Rays as we know them. Crawford, Carlos Peña and Rafael Soriano are eligible to become unrestricted free agents at season's end, and Matt Garza and B.J. Upton, due for substantial raises through salary arbitration, may very well be out the door with them. Big changes are coming in St. Pete, and we're not talking about Longoria's hair: owner Stu Sternberg has already said that the 2011 payroll will be slashed from over $71 million to closer to $50 million.

For now, though, it doesn't need to be said that the Rays have a Texas-sized challenge in front of them. (Only the 2001 Yankees have ever come back from an 0-2 hole in the Division Series after losing the first two at home.) The Tampa offense has been streaky all season, and they picked a very bad time to go ice cold. Over their last 10 games, going back to the regular season, the Rays have scored a total of 17 runs, and have been shut out four times. "You can go back to September, we just haven't been playing well," says Crawford. "It just really seems like that last week of the season is carrying over."

The Rangers, meanwhile, are firing on all cylinders. A day after Cliff Lee's gem, C.J. Wilson showed why he is the best No. 2 starter in the AL playoffs. "Watching Cliff yesterday and watching Roy Halladay last night, I had some inspiration," Wilson, who tossed 6 1/3 scoreless innings as easily as his teammate did in Game 1, said. Over two games, Rangers pitches have allowed one run, struck out 23 and walked just five hitters.

Josh Hamilton, such a big question mark with his fractured ribs entering the series, has played all out and put on a defensive clinic in Game 2 with back-to-back catches on the run in center field. In the seventh, Hamilton crashed into the outfield wall -- practically ribs first -- attempting to run down a Willy Aybar double. So how do the ribs feel? "Good enough," he said with a grin after the game.

As the series shifts to Texas, no Ray will be under more scrutiny, and perhaps more pressure, than Tampa's maverick skipper. Maddon has been scrutinized for starting Rocco Baldelli at DH in Game 1 (Baldelli, who had a total of five hits in the regular season, looked overwhelmed in three at bats). He has been scrutinized for slotting at leadoff a hitter with a .324 OBP who hasn't hit first since May (Jason Bartlett). He has been scrutinized for starting Shields, the first pitcher in history with 15 losses and an ERA over 5.00 to start a postseason game, in Game 2.

Asked a few hours before Thursday's game to defend his choice of Shields, Maddon stared through his Tina Fey glasses and nearly turned the media session into a book club discussion. "It's kind of like a Freakonomics look at how we're doing things here," he said, referring to the metrics that show that his right-hander, who wouldn't make it past the fifth inning on Thursday, has been "slightly unlucky this year regarding balls put in play."

Maddon was later asked why his Game 2 lineup hadn't yet been posted. "We're waiting on the computer right now," said the numbers savvy-maverick who has used 131 different batting orders in 164 games. "We've got a few more things to think about."

You don't need a computer to tell you that Maddon and the Rays are in trouble. "Win 2 in Texas. Let's Go!" someone wrote on a marker board in the Rays clubhouse after the game. Against these Rangers, easier said than done.