ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Texas Rangers captured the franchise’s first playoff series in unconventional fashion, becoming the first team to win a series with all of its victories on the road.
So why not grab decisive Game 5 in the same unconventional way?
The Rangers spotted ace Cliff Lee a 3-1 lead by scoring each run without hitting the ball out of the infield. Elvis Andrus in the first inning and Vladimir Guerrero in the sixth each caught the Tampa Bay Rays surprisingly napping and scored from second base on a pair of normally harmless fielder’s choices.
The Rays might have been stunned. The Rangers say they just played it aggressively on the base paths like they always do.
“I don’t know if anyone’s been watching us, but we’re in the playoffs -- surprise -- and we’ve run the bases like this all year,” said Ian Kinsler, who beat the throw to first on a potential inning-ending double-play ball that allowed Guerrero to slid head-first safely under Shoppach’s glove. “Today we were able to do it, and it paid off for us.”
Andrus opened the game against Rays ace David Price with a solid single into right. Michael Young struck out and then Andrus stole second on a 1-2 pitch to Josh Hamilton. On a 3-2 pitch, Andrus took off for third and Hamilton bounced it to first base. Carlos Pena fielded and nonchalantly tossed to Price for the out at first.
As he rounded third, Andrus slowed, read the situation and then took off for home. Price, incredibly, had no idea Andrus was on the move and he was so late to discover what was happening that he never even had a chance to throw home. The Rangers led 1-0 and the Texas dugout went nuts.
“They are really a running team. That’s their game. We can beat them too in that part of the game,” Andrus said. “I already was stealing third; I see the opportunity and I took it. [Manager] Ron [Washington] talked to us during the whole year, play the way you always play, be aggressive and follow your instincts.”
With Lee getting out of a jam in the third, Cruz made it 2-1 in the fourth with his steal of third. Shoppach’s throw was nowhere close for third baseman Evan Longoria to nab it, and Cruz scored easily.
The one that put the game away was the 35-year-old Guerrero chugging around third on Kinsler’s potential double-play ball. Guerrero was on second and Cruz was on first when Kinsler grounded Price’s pitch to Pena at first. Pena turned and fired to second to get Cruz, but Price seemed to forget he needed to cover first on the play.
He was late getting to the bag and Kinsler beat out a close call at first. Price turned his head in disbelief toward first base umpire Mike DiMuro and, again, apparently completely forgot about the lead runner. Guerrero never stopped, and by the time Price realized what was happening his throw was late and Guerrero got his hand safely under Shoppach's tag.
“What do you have to lose coming around that bag hard and running toward home plate?” Washington said of Guerrero's charge home. “If they turn the double play, the inning is over. He took a shot. They didn’t turn the double play, and we got a run. That’s the way you run the bases. Sometimes it takes you out of innings, but a lot of times, if you do it correctly, it helps spark you. It helped sparked us.”
The scoreboard flipped to 3-1 and the 41,000-plus at Tropicana Field booed heartily. They weren't happy with the safe call at first, but they had more more reason to condemn their team's unfathomable brain freezes that put them in a serious hole. And that included their own bad base running. Jason Bartlett stymied a possible big third inning when he inexplicably took off for home on a one-out grounder back to the mound. Lee tossed it to Bengie Molina and Bartlett was a dead duck in a run down.
The Rays settled for just the one run to tie the game, but kept Lee from pitching from behind as the Rangers' big bats still weren't clicking.
Young and Hamilton continued to struggle, and it wasn’t until the ninth inning when Kinsler, who hit safely and scored in all five games, pummeled a Rafael Soriano pitch into the left-field bleachers that the Rangers actually scored a run on a hit.
“We definitely scrapped those runs,” said Lee, who notched his second complete game in seven postseason starts. “Give a lot of credit to our guys on the base paths, hustling and never giving up. That was huge.
"And then Kinsler hitting that home run in the ninth kind of sealed the deal. They can’t hit a four-run home run if I don’t walk guys.”
It wasn’t the first time this season that the Rangers plated runs all the way from second on hits in the infield. Hamilton did it twice. But to pull it off twice in an elimination game, when runs are at a premium, is remarkable. Consider that no team has ever scored two runs from second on infield outs in a game in postseason history. And only the 1970 Baltimore Orioles did it once in Game 5 of the World Series.
Washington said there was no greater emphasis put on aggressive baserunning coming into the game, just the usual stuff, he said.
“That was huge, especially the way we did it,” Washington said of Andrus’ smart running to get a first-inning lead. “That just goes to show that we were alert out there tonight. We were ready to play baseball out there tonight. I’m not saying that Tampa wasn’t, but we were ready to play baseball tonight and it showed.”