ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays left the magic somewhere back in September. They couldn’t summon another miracle comeback Tuesday afternoon in their white-domed home, not even after getting a pair of base runners in the ninth and bringing the winning run to the plate. With their rookie hitting star in the batter’s box, and the crowd of 28,299 on its feet and chanting, “Let’s go Rays!” the Rays went, indeed.
They went right out of the playoffs.
Veteran Adrian Beltre set up the Texas Rangers’ 4-3 victory by hitting a trio of home runs, and hard-throwing reliever Neftali Feliz finished the job by shutting down the ninth-inning rally. With the tying run on first and two out, Desmond Jennings chopped a weak grounder to second base. Ian Kinsler snagged it with care and pitched it to shortstop Elvis Andrus, who recorded the final out. The two men danced like little children before springing into each others’ arms in a violent hug.
Three straight victories against the Rays in this best-of-five American League Division Series gave the Rangers a date with either the Detroit Tigers or New York Yankees in the next round of the postseason as they try to return to the World Series for the second straight year – this time, to avenge last year’s loss to San Francisco in five games.
“They’re on a mission from last year,” Texas Rangers team president Nolan Ryan said. “They didn’t get it done and finished.”
That was Tampa Bay’s lament Tuesday. After improbably climbing back from nine games back in the race for the playoffs in the season’s last month, the Rays couldn’t get the lead in a close game they trailed from the second pitch. A leadoff home run by Kinsler and Beltre’s three provided just enough to ensure that the Rays’ historic run through the end of the regular season would be the season’s best memory for Tampa Bay’s players.
“Baseball’s hard, man,” said Rays right fielder Matt Joyce, who made the game’s second-to-last out with a pop fly caught by Beltre in foul territory. “We have an immense amount of talent on this team. We pulled out so many comebacks, had so many guys do a phenomenal job for us this year that it’s a little bit disappointing to finish this way… We couldn’t muster up any more.”
The victory set off a wild celebration in the visitor’s locker room at Tropicana Field, where Rangers players donned swim goggles to administer and endure the spray of ginger ale, champagne and cans of soda. The most obvious target of the non-stop shower of beverages was Beltre, who couldn’t complete an interview without being doused until being whisked off to the interview room.
Beltre, who has played 13 seasons for four teams, called the performance his best day as a pro besides getting his first major league hit back in 1998.
“Because,” he said, “my team needed every bit of it to win the game tonight, and that means something.”
Beltre homered twice on fastballs thrown by rookie starter Jeremy Hellickson in the second and fourth innings, then got his third in the seventh off of reliever Matt Moore. Moore had been summoned in the fifth to pick up the pieces for Hellickson, who allowed just four hits — three of which were home runs. I
“Nobody was just happy to be here,” said Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, who struck out five times in Tampa Bay’s last two losses. “It’s tough to talk about the positive.”
Rays Manager Joe Maddon did just that, however, recalling the team’s 0-6 start. He said he boarded the team plane after the sixth defeat with a bottle of a fine Napa Valley whiskey – and cracked it open for his players.
“I gave everybody a cup, and at that time I saluted the best 0-6 team in the history of Major League Baseball,” he said. “I didn’t realize I was such a prophet.”
The Rays may well go down as the best team to start 0-6; for sure, they became the only team to recover from such a major deficit in the season’s last month. The remarkable comeback was capped with a remarkable season finale: In their last game against the Yankees, they fell behind 7-0 yet won in extra innings, wrenching the wild-card berth from the Boston Red Sox.
“It was still a great season,” said Rays shortstop Sean Rodriguez, who scored all three of the Rays’ runs. “It’s hard to be upset when you give it everything you’ve got.”
Rodriguez gave most of what he had to Texas catcher Mike Napoli, who blocked the plate in the second inning as Rodriguez busted around third on a double by Joyce, attempting to score. The ball and Rodriguez arrived simultaneously, and Rodriguez lowered his shoulder and plowed into Napoli with such force that both took flight, landing on their backs with their feet pointing skyward.
And the ball dribbled helplessly away. Rodriguez was safe, and the author of the game’s most ferocious highlight. Maddon called it a “beautiful collision.”
Despite that play, the Rays struggled for traction against Texas starter Matt Harrison, who allowed a handful of hits but mowed down Tampa Bay’s best hitters with critical strikeouts that proved far more deceptive than overpowering.
He struck out the side in the third, getting B.J. Upton, Longoria and Ben Zobrist back-to-back-to-back, and it was a thing of beauty. Upton whiffed on a 93-mph fastball, Longoria kept his bat on his shoulder and stared at an 89-mph slider, and Zobrist was way ahead on an 83-mph changeup.
That, and Beltre’s stunning production, were enough to snuff out the Rays’ magic.
“Amazing,” Rangers Manager Ron Washington said. “Today, everybody – all hands were on the deck today... We put the best we had out there today, and we survived it.”