ARLINGTON, Texas -- They came early. Earlier than they'd ever come for a baseball game. On a hot Saturday afternoon, they lined up behind the tall steel gates an hour before they would open. They squeezed into the ballpark wearing the blue and red T-shirts and holding white towels and brooms with deer antlers tied to them. The Rangers faithful came for a baseball game, yes, but they also came for a party.
Late into Game 3 of the AL Division Series between the Rangers and Rays, the party -- a celebration of Texas' first-ever postseason series victory -- looked inevitable. When B.J. Upton stepped up to the plate with two outs in the sixth inning, it had been 16 innings since Tampa had last scored (they had gone 0-for-14 with runners in scoring position), and it was beginning to look like the Rays, looking so lifeless and lost all series, would have to wait until next spring to score their next run. And then, Upton ripped a single into left field to drive in Dan Johnson. And then, Jason Bartlett went as horizontal as a table and made a catch on a Nelson Cruz liner in the bottom of the inning to save a run.
And then, slowly ... the Tampa Bay Rays, for the first time in the series, began resembling the Tampa Bay Rays. On Saturday morning, Tampa's mad professor, Joe Maddon, had rearranged his lineup again, with catcher John Jaso hitting leadoff, and Upton, Carlos Pena, and Jason Bartlett hitting 7-8-9 -- and it was Jaso with the Rays' biggest hit of the season, an eighth-inning single off Rangers closer Neftali Feliz to break a 2-2 tie and give the Rays the lead for good. With that hit, Maddon says, "The whole attitude within the dugout, the spirit, everything just came to life."
There was Carl Crawford making a shoestring catch to rob Josh Hamilton of a base hit in the eighth. There was Carlos Pena rocketing a ball over the center-field wall in the ninth. There was Rafael Soriano shutting the door in the ninth. The AL East champs were back. "There was a lot of pent-up frustration," said Tampa Bay starter Matt Garza, who allowed two runs (one earned) over six innings in a clutch performance. "But once we opened that window, good things started to happen."
In a little more than 12 hours, both teams would be back at the ballpark again for Game 4. Suddenly, with the Rays now just one win from bringing this series back to Tampa for a winner-take-all Game 5, the pressure may very well be on the Rangers. Texas is now 0-5 in home playoff games, and has scored a total of just nine runs in those five games. The Rays got to Feliz, the gun-slinging rookie who was so dominant in the regular season but suddenly looked hittable under the October lights.
It's difficult to say who has the edge in Sunday's game with two young pitchers, Texas' Tommy Hunter and Tampa Bay's Wade Davis, both making the start of their lives. Hunter was 7-0 with a 3.16 ERA at home this year. Wade has pitched well recently, with a 3.20 ERA in six starts since the start of September.
Maddon has confidence in his 25-year-old rookie. "He's kind of cold-blooded," the skipper said Saturday morning. "On an off-day in Toronto, the boys went bear hunting, and Wade was the only one that came back with the 300-plus pound black bear. If he can stay eye-to-eye with a black bear, I think tomorrow is not that big of a deal."
And so it'll be the Bear Hunter and "Big Game" Hunter in Game 4. The Rangers faithful will be back at the ballpark, now wondering if there will be any party at all.