ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)—Young, resilient and a victory away from the American League championship series. The Rays are breezing through the playoffs, much as they did during the regular season.
All-Star Scott Kazmir settled down after a shaky start, Akinori Iwamura hit a go-ahead, two-run homer and the AL East champions beat the Chicago White Sox 6-2 Friday night for a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series.
“This is just awesome,” said Rocco Baldelli, who singled in a run.
Giving many fans a close-up look of the formula that transformed Tampa Bay from a last-place team to a power, the Rays rallied for the second straight day and remained undefeated in their young postseason history.
“I like the attitude. I like the way we’re going about our business,” manager Joe Maddon said.
The Rays go for a sweep when the series resumes Sunday in Chicago. Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza (11-9) faces John Danks (12-9), trying to seal a matchup against World Series champion Boston or the Los Angeles Angels in the next round.
“We’re a relaxed bunch,” Baldelli said. “We chill out in the clubhouse. We have fun. That’s what got us here.”
Of the 35 teams to fall behind 2-0 in the division series before this year, just five have come back to advance, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
But the Rays, who won 97 games this year after finishing with the worst record in the majors a year ago, aren’t taking anything for granted.
“These are the Chicago White Sox. They’re a veteran team. They can come back and win three easy if you let them,” pitcher J.P. Howell said. “We gotta go like we have been.”
It’s been a bleak October for both Chicago teams. The Cubs lost their first two NL playoff games at home to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“We’re against the wall,” White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. “We’ve got to fight like a cat, and now it’s a must-win game.”
Chicago started quickly, scoring twice in the first on Jim Thome’s RBI single and Alexei Ramirez’s sacrifice fly, but Kazmir struck out Juan Uribe with the bases loaded to end the inning after three straight foul balls.
Dioner Navarro’s run-scoring single off Mark Buehrle in the second began the comeback following a two-base throwing error by Ramirez at second. Iwamura gave Tampa Bay a 3-2 lead with a drive into the left-center field stands off Buehrle in the fifth.
“I knew it was gone,” Iwamura said.
The Rays added three runs in the eighth, when B.J. Upton tripled and scored on Carl Crawford’s single, which chased Buehrle. Baldelli’s run-scoring single against Octavio Dotel made it 5-2, and Navarro followed with a RBI double off Matt Thornton.
At 24, Kazmir is the youngest member of Tampa Bay’s rotation and already the franchise’s career victories leader. But high pitch counts also have been an issue for the two-time All-Star, who threw 37 in the first inning.
“It was a battle the whole time,” Kazmir said. “It was just me not really trusting myself.”
He hit Orlando Cabrera with a pitch, walked Nick Swisher and gave up a single to Jermaine Dye that loaded the bases with no outs in the first—hardly the start Kazmir was looking for after giving up four homers in two of his last three regular-season outings.
“Be patient. That was my thought,” Maddon said. “It’s really important that we get him going. … If he was able to get through that, I thought he might be able to settle in; and he did.”
Chicago threatened again in the second and fourth but couldn’t score. The White Sox stranded eight runners through five innings, allowing the Rays to stay close until Iwamura’s opposite-field homer put Tampa Bay ahead.
The sellout crowd of 35,257 at Tropicana Field stood and chanted “Aki! Aki! Aki!” until Iwamura poked his head out of the dugout for a curtain call. He homered once in 192 at-bats against left-handed pitching during the regular season.
Kazmir allowed two runs and eight hits in 5 1-3 innings, leaving after Uribe’s leadoff single and a sacrifice bunt in the sixth. Maddon brought in Grant Balfour to face Orlando Cabrera, who had a heated exchange with the Rays reliever before striking out in a crucial situation during Tampa Bay’s 6-4 win in Game 1.
Balfour got the better of Cabrera again, but this time without the dramatics of Thursday when the players shouted at each other after Balfour said something to himself on the mound and the White Sox shortstop mistakenly thought he was talking to him.
Cabrera grounded to second base, moving Uribe to third, before Balfour escaped the jam by getting Swisher on a flyout.
Tampa Bay’s bullpen worked 3 2-3 scoreless innings, with J.P. Howell and Chad Bradford following Balfour.
“They’re here for a reason,” Guillen said. “They’re here because they can pitch and they catch the ball. They will take any little thing and take advantage of their speed and they don’t strike out much. When you have that combination … you can be anything in the big leagues.”
Thome, in the playoffs for the first time since 2001 when he was with Cleveland, was 0-for-13 against Kazmir before his RBI single. He’s driven in 37 runs in 57 postseason games. … U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger threw out the ceremonial first pitch. … The Rays played without slugger Carlos Pena, who had slightly blurred vision in his left eye. He scratched his cornea at home Wednesday and was removed from Game 1 after two innings.
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