ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Rays manager Joe Maddon spoke matter-of-factly, assessing Tampa Bay’s chances of completing an improbable comeback against the Texas Rangers in the opening round of the AL playoffs.
Down 2-0 after losing the first two games of the series at home, the AL East champions rebounded to win the next two on the road and force a deciding Game 5 on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field.
Postseason ace-for-hire Cliff Lee will start for Texas, hoping to finish what he started with a dominating performance in Game 1.
The Rangers built on the 5-1 victory and were five outs from their first postseason series win before the sputtering Rays — in Maddon’s words — got their “mojo” back.
“Getting ahead is really a big component in this series,” said Maddon, who will send 19-game winner David Price to the mound in a rematch of the starting pitchers from the opener.
“The first three games we just did not show up. All of a sudden we showed up for what, one and a half games now? Definitely there’s a difference in the dugout and within the clubhouse. It’s back to where it had been, and that’s where we need to be. We play off our internal emotions pretty well, and we didn’t have any.”
The Rays, who had the AL’s best record this season, are trying to become the sixth team in major league history to win a postseason series after losing the first two games at home. The 2001 New York Yankees were the last to do it (and the only ones to rally in a best-of-five playoff), bouncing back against Oakland.
Maddon likes Price’s chances of completing the task, even though the 25-year-old was outpitched by Lee in Game 1.
“He was not satisfied in what he did that first game. I know him, he took a lot of that on himself,” Maddon said. “But I do believe any kind of mistakes he thought he made, he’s not going to make them in Game 5. He’s got the ability, both mentally and physically, to make the corrections, so that’s what I see from David. I see a very, very good performance.”
The Rangers are the only current major league franchise that has never won a playoff series. They outscored the Rays 11-1 in the first two games and led in the eighth inning of Game 3 before Tampa Bay fought back.
Since batting .123 (10 for 81) with one homer through the fifth inning of Game 3, the Rays have hit .362 (21 for 58) with four homers.
Texas manager Ron Washington is confident Lee can cool the bats again.
“They proved they can beat us on our field, we proved we can beat them on their field. This is what it’s about now,” Washington said when asked if he has a message for his team.
“They have the right person they feel that’s going to be throwing tomorrow, and we certainly feel the same way. So it’s a matter of going out there, getting Cliff some runs. And if we get him some runs, he’ll take it to the finish line. That’s what it’s all about.”
Lee, obtained from Seattle in early July with this type of situation in mind, is 5-0 with a 1.52 ERA in six career postseason starts.
The 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner was 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in the postseason for Philadelphia last October, including a pair of wins over the Yankees in the World Series.
Still, the Rays are confident. After all, they did beat him three times this season.
“Obviously, he’s had good postseason success. But at the same time, we’re in a good spot,” third baseman Evan Longoria said. “We’ve been able to bring the series back home, and we have our horse on the mound, too.”
Lee said he doesn’t feel extra pressure because of the Rangers’ history of postseason futility.
“I have heard about that, but that really doesn’t matter to me that much, to be honest with you. This is a different team,” he said. “It’s a whole different set of circumstances.
“What has happened in the past, they could have had 60 World Series rings and that’s not going to change the way I am approaching this season and this postseason. … We want to get a ring, period. Regardless of whether they’ve done it every season up until now or never done it before.”
Lee allowed one run and five hits, walked none and matched his postseason best of 10 strikeouts in Game 1.
He doesn’t plan to change much for Game 5.
“I am really a guy that goes out there and makes pitches and sees how the hitter swings at them and makes adjustments on the fly,” Lee said. “Obviously, I will have a game plan and what I did last time, a lot of that worked. So they will have to prove to me that they are making adjustments before I will make a big adjustment. That’s how I have always pitched.”
Price yielded homers to Nelson Cruz and Bengie Molina while giving up five runs and nine hits in the opener.
At 25, the young lefty is in his first full season in the majors. But he demonstrated two years that he’s capable of thriving on a big stage, coming out of the bullpen to get the final four outs against Boston in Game 7 of the AL championship series.
He’s eager to redeem himself and relishes the challenge of doing it against Lee.
“This is what you grow up as little kids seeing, growing up watching all the games, the postseason games and World Series games, and you see matchups like this,” Price said. “Now that I get to be a part of one, I need to kind of grasp it and take control of it and give us a chance to win.”