ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Tampa Bay Rays starter David Price’s inexplicable winless streak against the Texas Rangers continued Monday night, but the young lefty with the huge fastball hardly deserved blame for his team’s 4-3 loss in Game 3 of the American League Division Series.
A few moments of weakness by Price, a full-throttle collapse by a pair of relievers and sluggish offense that couldn’t take advantage of late-inning chances left the Rays down 2-1 in this best-of-five series with Game 4 here Tuesday afternoon.
Two solo home runs by rookie Desmond Jennings couldn’t spark the Rays, as the Rangers’ bullpen bent, and bent again, but ultimately preserved a superb start by Colby Lewis, who surrendered just one hit — Jennings’s first home run — in six innings to earn the victory.
“I was a nervous wreck,” Texas Rangers President Nolan Ryan said outside the team’s clubhouse moments after the game. “That’s probably as stressful a game as I’ve sat through.”
The Rays stranded four men in the seventh and eighth innings, and the game ended when Game 1 hero Kelly Shoppach hit into a game-ending double play, leaving the sellout crowd of 32,828 murmuring in disbelief. A few innings earlier, the fans had lustily booed the hometown team’s relievers.
A two-run home run by Rangers catcher Mike Napoli and a two-out single by Craig Gentry ended what had been a stellar performance by Price, who started with six scoreless innings but ended up with his sixth loss — including three in the playoffs — against the Rangers, the only team in the American League he hasn’t beaten since being selected first overall in the 2007 draft.
“That’s the best thing about the playoffs,” Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus said. “A lot of good things happen in less than five seconds.”
Price got charged with another run and the Rays fell behind 4-1 after the men summoned to rescue him faltered. Reliever Brandon Gomes walked the only two men he faced and J.P. Howell allowed a two-run single to Josh Hamilton.
Price “threw the ball great,” Rays shortstop Reid Brignac said. “The one pitch to Napoli was a good pitch. . . . I wish we could have gotten the win for him.”
The Rangers didn’t score again, but their seventh-inning splurge was enough to give them a chance to return to the AL Championship Series with a victory Tuesday.
Lewis, 31, was almost untouchable during the Rangers’ playoff run last season, posting a 3-0 record and 1.71 ERA, and he looked just as sharp Monday. Yet he was the first to falter in a sizzling early duel between him and Price.
In the fourth, Jennings turned on a first-pitch fastball left up over the plate and ripped it over the left field wall. Despite struggling with his control for the rest of the inning — he fell behind 3-0 to Matt Joyce and Johnny Damon and allowed Upton to get to third on a wild pitch — Lewis escaped with no further damage by fighting back with a trio of strikeouts.
“You have to give Jennings credit,” Rangers Manager Ron Washington said. “He threw a pitch down and in and he got it out of there. And from that point on, it was just about matching zeros with Price because he was throwing well, also.”
Lewis was charged with one run on one hit in six innings, with two walks and six strikeouts. Price got docked for seven hits, three runs, one walk and three strikeouts in his 62 / 3 innings, but the numbers that really betrayed Tampa Bay were these: The Rays went 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position.
“When you leave runners on in a tight game, it’s always a little frustrating,” Jennings said. “But it’s part of baseball. We’ll come to play tomorrow.”
Price’s lack of success when facing the Rangers almost defies logic. In eight career starts before Monday, he had managed an ugly 0-5 record and 5.40 ERA — including a pair of losses in last year’s playoffs.
Perhaps increasing the apprehension for Rays fans: Price, who has a career 3.38 earned run average and finished second in the Cy Young voting last year, had struggled throughout September. He had failed to win a single game and put the Rays in a 6-0 hole against the New York Yankees on the season’s last day.
Yet Texas struggled to get solid wood on Price’s mid-90s fastballs, high-80s cutters and low-80s change-ups through six scoreless innings. He scattered a few singles — including a pair of infield hits — but refused to give the Rangers anything to overpower.
But then came the seventh, enough of a flinch to finish Price’s night and ensure he would get charged with another loss.
On the next pitch, Napoli crushed a 94-mph fastball over the left-center field wall.
The Rays came right back against reliever Darren Oliver, getting three straight one-out singles to load the bases in the seventh. Sean Rodriguez grounded out to the right side of the infield to score Damon from third, but Sam Fuld grounded out to end the threat with the Rays down 4-2.
Jennings hit his second home run off Mike Adams to lead off the eighth inning, driving a slider over the left-center field wall. Three straight walks from Adams followed, but the Rangers held on.
“It was one swing away for the go-ahead run,” Beltre said of the Rays’ late-inning chances. “We wanted to win this game so bad.”