October 07, 2010
Tampa Bay came in with the best record in the AL and was presumably sharper from having to fight with the New York Yankees for a division title the last two months of the season. Texas had the fewest wins among all eight playoff teams and was presumably soft from leading the least competitive division in baseball.
It hasn't quite worked out that way, however. The Rangers are headed back to Texas for Saturday's Game 3 and are on the verge of eliminating a World Series favorite in three straight games.
Here are five reasons why it's come to this:
1. The Rangers have capitalized on their scoring situations: The Rays had no better opportunity to assert themselves in this series than in Game 1, when they loaded the bases against Cliff Lee(notes) with just one out in the first inning. Carlos Pena argued that Lee's 2-1 fastball nicked him on the hand, but home plate umpire Tim Welke said it hit Pena's bat and ruled it a foul ball. Pena protested and perhaps lost his focus. Two of Lee's next three pitches were right down the middle, but Pena couldn't put them in play.
Compare that to Game 2 when the Rangers put two runners on in the fifth inning and knocked James Shields(notes) out. Chad Qualls(notes) may have gotten Michael Young(notes) to chase a 2-2 slider outside, but first base umpire Jerry Meals ruled Young checked his swing. On replay, it looked like Young's bat went around, and the Rays were obviously upset about the call. But given another chance to drive runners in, Young launched a hanging sinker by Qualls to centerfield for a three-run homer.
2. Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson(notes) made their pitches: With David Price(notes) and Shields, the Rays appeared to have the pitching advantage in these first two games. But Tampa Bay's starters consistently left pitches in the middle of the strike zone, allowing the Rangers to tee off. Texas has four home runs and 19 hits in two games. Meanwhile, Lee and Wilson consistently found the edges of the strike zone, staying away from the middle and giving the Rays nothing to hit. Tampa has a total of one run and eight hits thus far.
3. Josh Hamilton(notes) is showing better center field glove: Think of Hamilton making a diving catch on Willy Aybar's(notes) sinking liner in the second inning of Game 2. Compare that to B.J. Upton(notes) trotting after Nelson Cruz's(notes) double earlier in the inning. Every ball the Rays hit seems to go to Hamilton in center field, while seemingly everything the Rangers hit goes over Upton's head while he flails at it helplessly.
4. Rangers baserunners are more aggressive: Maybe this is unfair, given that the Rays have gotten on base so much less than the Rangers, but Texas is making things happen. In Game 2's third inning, the Rangers had runners on first and third, and Shields was worried about Elvis Andrus(notes) stealing second and taking away the double play. As Buck Martinez said on the TBS broadcast, "Speed is a distraction." Shields eventually skipped a pickoff throw past Ben Zobrist(notes), allowing Texas to score its first run.
5. The Rays are waiting for umpires to make plays for them: Umpiring has been a problem for baseball dating back to last year's postseason. And maybe the checked swing call in Game 2 was blown. But the Rays seem like they're waiting for the umps to make a call for them, rather than making a play themselves. Pena argues he was hit by a pitch, Qualls (and Shields, Matt Garza(notes) and Joe Maddon from the dugout) wants a called strikeout on Young, Rays pitchers think they're getting squeezed on the outside corner. Yeah, setbacks suck, but you have to quickly rebound against adversity when you're in the playoffs.
Taken altogether, these result in an easy 2-0 lead for the Rangers as they head home to Arlington and what looks like a likely series win.