ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – If anyone wondered what happened to the "Devil" in Devil Rays, he showed up Thursday.
The Tampa Bay Rays, a team known for its cool under fire, looked spooked, allowing bad breaks and bad calls to leave them muttering oaths and shouting at supposed demons. They now stand at death's door, down 0-2 in the American League Division Series, and might as well leave for Texas with the horror movie cliché, "I'll be right back."
Meanwhile, the Rangers are playing like a team possessed.
You know your team isn't doing well when TV cameras zoom in on your dugout for the better part of an hour. The TBS producers got exactly what they wanted out of a Rays club that should have calmed down and focused in a tough situation but instead had a collective out-of-body experience – rocked and roiled by a couple of umpire decisions that were too close to blow up over.
And it seems everything is magnified in the Rays' minds. They have been resilient all season, most recently rebounding from 0-2 regular-season series deficits in New York and Kansas City, but this feels very different. The team looked uptight from the beginning of Game 2. Starting pitcher James Shields'(notes) obsession with Elvis Andrus(notes) leading off at first base in the top of the third inning turned into a near-balk and then an errant pick-off throw. That led to the Rangers' first run.
In the bottom of that inning, a called strike three had B.J. Upton(notes) jawing at home plate umpire Jim Wolf, and then a flyout left Evan Longoria(notes) spearing his bat into the turf. Perhaps most telling was a shot by Desmond Jennings(notes) in that inning that went just foul. On the next pitch, Jennings struck out. It's been that way for the Rays – when something bad happens, they make the wound into a gash.
Which brings us to the inning that looks like it will go on the Rays' 2010 coroner's report as the cause of death: the sixth.
Shields almost beaned Matt Treanor(notes), putting him on first. Julio Borbon(notes) moved him over with a sacrifice bunt. Andrus singled, moving Treanor to third. Rays manager Joe Maddon pulled Shields for Chad Qualls(notes). That in itself might have troubled the Rays because Shields didn't think he should have left the game and made his sentiment obvious in the dugout.
"I've never had an outing like that," Shields said afterward. "I really felt I pitched fine tonight."
Qualls worked Michael Young(notes) to a 2-2 count and then threw a slider. Young checked his swing. Wolf appealed to first, but first-base umpire Jerry Meals sided with Young. Replays indicated Young had, indeed, swung. The Rays lost it, led by Shields screaming at Meals for not ringing up Young. Qualls' next pitch landed 431 feet from home plate, and three Rangers trotted the bases, making the score 5-0. Maddon hustled out to the mound and instead of pouring water on the fire, doused it with gasoline. He got tossed. And it was all over but the excessive shouting.
Afterward, the Rays seemed calmer. But the edge was there. "He hit a homer," Qualls said of Young. "What do you want me to do?" Asked if the Rangers should be given credit, Qualls said, "You can do whatever you want."
A few feet away, standing under a shelf with two empty champagne bottles from a seemingly ancient playoff-clinching celebration, Kelly Shoppach(notes) took a sip from a Michelob Ultra. The catcher politely refused to disclose what he said to Wolf after the home plate ump rang him up late in the game. Shoppach ran almost all the way to first before spinning around, waving a hand at Wolf and yelling – forgive the amateur lip-reading – "You shouldn't even be here!"
Shoppach smiled and explained: "My emotions build up over the course of a game. If you're against us, I'm against you. The call went against us, so I'm against him."
That's fine under normal circumstances. But the Rays don't need emotion. They need hits and wits.
The Rangers have had both in bushels. They have been cold-blooded killers, tying Tampa Bay in knots with superb pitching and overwhelming hitting. They have brought big bats and big arms to a town that really doesn't have many of either. And they have beaten the Rays at their own game as well.
"Emotionally, our team had been looking for a chance to play in the postseason," Rangers catcher Treanor said. "And we feel like we've really stepped up here. All year we talked about was, 'I trust myself; I trust my teammates.' That's what we focus on. We have confidence in ourselves."
That serenity has calmed even Rangers president Nolan Ryan.
"That did make me somewhat anxious – about how they would respond in their first outing," Ryan said. "You don't know what to expect when the young guys get put in there. But we have a sprinkling of veterans who have helped them out."
The irony, of course, is that the Rangers are modeled after the Rays, a team that looked so completely fearless just two Octobers ago.