Wednesday, June 15, 2011

2010 ALDS: Switching roles

Most people probably didn't predict a Tampa-Texas playoff series at the beginning of the 2010 season, but it wouldn't have been such a stretch to do so. Though they hadn't been to the playoffs in 11 years, the Rangers had been creeping closer to the top of the AL West in recent years, coming off back-to-back second-place finishes. With a strong pitching staff added to their typically strong lineup, the Rangers got over the top in 2010, winning the division by nine games.

Tampa Bay, meanwhile, returned to the playoffs after a year away, holding off the Yankees down the stretch to win the AL East. Featuring many of the same players from their World Series team of 2008, plus the well-respected Joe Madden as manager, the Rays were favorites in the first round against the Rangers.

The Division Series wasn't a good series to be the home team. Hosting the first two games, Tampa Bay was twice blown away by the Rangers, a team that had never won a playoff series. The series then moved to Texas, where the Rangers had never won a home playoff game. That streak stretched to six straight losses when Tampa won games 3 and 4 to send the series back to Tampa for the deciding game.

To pitch in the deciding game, Texas picked Cliff Lee, who they had acquired from Seattle midseason specifically to pitch in games like this. Lee had earned the win in Game 1, giving up only 1 run in 7 innings pitched. Going up against him was Tampa Bay's ace, David Price. Though Price had lost Game 1 to Lee, he had a good postseason pedigree, as it was his clutch relief performances that led Tampa Bay to the 2008 World Series.

The Game
Tampa Bay entered Game 5 as the team with the reputation of doing all the little things it takes to win a game - taking the extra base, timely suicide squeezes, hit-and-runs, nothing was off the table for the Rays. Meanwhile, the Rangers' reputation was one of power, power, and more power.

So it wasn't a surprise when the Rangers scored first; the real surprise was how they did it. After Elvis Andrus led off the game with a single, he stole second base with one out. AL MVP Josh Hamilton grounded out to the right side, but Andrus surprised everybody by flying around third and not slowing down on his way to score the game's first run.

With how improbably they had scored the first run and with their ace on the hill, Texas was flying high. Tampa tied the game in the third, but Texas got another run in the fourth using their legs rather than their power. Nelson Cruz, who had hit a two-out double, surprisingly tried to steal third. The Rays were especially surprised, throwing the ball away, and Cruz trotted home while the ball rolled into left field.

The next surprise came in the sixth. With Ranger runners on first and second and one out, Ian Kinsler hit what should have been an inning-ending double-play grounder, but he beat the throw to first. Meanwhile, Vladimir Guerrero, the Texas designated hitter who was one of the slowest players on the field, followed Andrus' lead and didn't slow down around third, coming home to score the game's third run.

So the Rangers had a 3-1 lead - with two players having scored from second on a routine ground out - and had their ace on the mound. For all intents and purposes, it was over. Lee allowed only one base runner after Guerrero scored the game's third run. Meanwhile, just to remind people how they got this far in the first place, Texas added two more runs on a deep home run by Kinsler in the ninth.

The two runs extra runs were nice, but they were completely unnecessary. Lee cruised through the ninth, and the Rangers had their first win in a postseason series.

The Rangers moved on to play their traditional postseason nemesis, the Yankees, in the ALCS. After the Yankees won Game 1, Texas took Game 2, in the process ending their seven game postseason home losing streak. The Rangers then won two of three in New York before finishing off the series in six games. Texas' magic ran out in the World Series, as their powerful lineup was cut down by the sensational pitching of San Francisco.

The Rundown

17. Texas 5, Tampa Bay 1 (2010 ALDS)
18. San Francisco 3, Atlanta 1 (2002 NLDS)
19. N.Y. Yankees 5, Oakland 3 (2001 ALDS)
20. Seattle 3, Cleveland 1 (2001 ALDS)
21. Chicago 5, San Francisco 3 (1998 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
22. N.Y. Yankees 7, Oakland 5 (2000 ALDS)
23. Los Angeles 4, Houston 0 (1981 NL West Division Series)
24. Montreal 3, Philadelphia 0 (1981 NL East Division Series)
25. N.Y. Yankees 7, Milwaukee 3 (1981 AL East Division Series)
26. Seattle 9, California 1 (1995 AL West tiebreaker)
27. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
28. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
29. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
30. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
31. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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