ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. | Cliff Lee added another impressive line to his growing October resume, putting the Texas Rangers on his back and carrying them into the AL championship series for the first time.
Lee tossed another postseason gem and Texas won a playoff series for the first time, beating the Tampa Bay Rays 5-1 Tuesday night in a decisive Game 5 on the legs of some daring baserunning.
“It was a lot of fun, I know that much,” Lee said. “We had our back against the wall today and we came out and performed.”
The Rangers will host the wild-card New York Yankees in the opener of the best-of-seven ALCS on Friday night. Texas’ previous three playoff appearances ended with first-round losses to New York, in 1996, 1998 and 1999.
The teams split eight games during the regular season, with the Rangers winning the final four.
“They’re a great team and that’s why they are where they are,” Lee said. “They’re going to be a good challenge, just like these guys.”
Ian Kinsler hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning for Texas, which had been the only active major league franchise that hadn’t won a playoff series.
Lee improved to 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA and three complete games in seven career postseason starts, striking out 54 and walking six in 56 1-3 innings.
The left-hander, acquired from Seattle in July, threw 120 pitches and walked none. He retired his final nine batters and prevented Tampa Bay from completing an improbable comeback after losing the first two games at home.
When B.J. Upton popped out to shortstop for the final out, Lee didn’t even watch the ball drop into Elvis Andrus‘ glove. He simply walked toward catcher Bengie Molina and the two hugged as Rangers players poured onto the field to mob Lee near the plate.
The Rays had the AL’s best record this season, giving them home-field advantage in the playoffs. But they lost all three games at Tropicana Field, managing only two runs in the process.
It’s the first playoff series victory in the 50-season history of the Washington/Texas franchise.
“It’s something we’re proud of,” slugger Josh Hamilton said. “Hopefully, we can take it to the next level.”
Back in the clubhouse, the first round of celebrating was with ginger ale so that Hamilton, who has battled alcohol and drug addiction, could take part. When he left the room, the Rangers brought out champagne.
Lee, the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner, won the series opener 5-1, allowing five hits and striking out 10 over seven innings. He fanned Rays slugger Carlos Pena six of the seven times he faced him in the series, and finished with an AL division series record 21 Ks in two games.
Texas pitchers struck out 55 in the five games, a record for a division series in either league.
After losing the first two games at Tropicana Field, the Rays rallied to win Games 3 and 4 in Texas to give themselves a chance to join the 1985 Royals, 1986 Mets, 1996 Yankees and 2001 Yankees as the only teams to lose the first two games of a postseason series at home and come back to win the series.
For the first time since Tampa Bay’s final four home games of the 2008 postseason, the tarps from the upper deck at Tropicana Field were removed, boosting capacity in the domed stadium by about 5,000 seats — some with obstructed views.
But a sellout crowd of 41,845 was not enough to keep the Rays’ bats from going silent again.
Not with Lee on the mound.
Price, a 19-game winner in his first full season in the majors, allowed three runs and eight hits in six innings. The Rangers hurt him with two long home runs in Game 1, but did much of their damage this time on ground balls that forced him to cover first base.
Lee went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five postseason starts for Philadelphia in 2009. He began this season with the Mariners and was acquired by Texas in the hope that he again would make a difference in the playoffs.
Despite the lack of success against Lee in the opener, the Rays were confident going into Game 5. They beat him three times during the regular season and hit the ball hard in Game 1, even though they had just five hits to show for it.
The Rangers gave Lee an early 1-0 lead, catching the Rays napping after Andrus led off the game with a single and stole second base. Price coaxed Hamilton into hitting a grounder to first base, and Andrus — running on the pitch — scored from second base when Pena flipped the ball to Price covering the bag and the pitcher didn’t turn to check on Andrus.
Texas remained aggressive on the bases. The slow-footed Molina singled and stole second on a full-count pitch in the third, his first steal since Sept. 9, 2006, with Toronto.
In the fourth, Nelson Cruz doubled off the wall in the deepest part of the ballpark — narrowly missing his fourth homer of the series. He put the Rangers ahead 2-1 when he stole third — with two outs — and continued home on a throwing error by catcher Kelly Shoppach.
With runners at first and second and one out, Kinsler hit a grounder to Pena. The first baseman fielded the ball and threw to second for a force out, but the relay throw to Price covering first was not in time for an inning-ending double play.
Notes: The Rays waited until just before gametime to reveal that OF Rocco Baldelli, who was removed from the roster after Game 1, would throw out the ceremonial first pitch. He was the designated hitter in the opener, but did not play the remainder of the serious because left leg fatigue, which is symptomatic of mitochondrial disorder, a condition he was diagnosed with two years ago. … Zobrist’s wife, Julianna, sang the national anthem.
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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