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Rays, Rangers set for replay

Different paths taken to the ALDS this time

By Stephen Hawkins
Associated Press / September 30, 2011

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ARLINGTON, Texas - The Texas Rangers had to win their last six games in the regular season to earn home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Just to get into the postseason, Tampa Bay had to overcome a nine-game deficit in the final month, as well as a seven-run deficit in the final game.

“Right now there’s nothing that we don’t think that we can’t do. . . . We believe,’’ Rays manager Joe Maddon said yesterday, a day before the opener of a rematch of last year’s American League Division Series. “We definitely have a strong belief system going on right now, regardless of how we can look at these other teams that we have to play, and maybe there’s areas that they appear to be stronger than we, and probably are.’’

A tired Tampa Bay team arrived yesterday at Rangers Ballpark, where the defending AL champions were already working out after flying home from Los Angeles.

When the Rangers and Rays met in the playoffs last season, the visiting team won every game, the only time that has ever happened.

Game 1 is today, when C.J. Wilson (16-7) pitches for the Rangers, who have won 14 of 16 games and set a franchise record with 96 victories. Wilson has known for more than a week that he’d be starting the playoff opener. Fellow lefthander Derek Holland (16-5) is set to start Game 2 tomorrow night.

Maddon, whose team went 16-8 while having to play every day like an elimination game for the past few weeks, said Rays coaches were still discussing their playoff rotation.

“We celebrated [Wednesday] night, as we should have,’’ Maddon said. “My focus is on one night at a time and I really don’t try to split my concentration under those moments. I was more concerned about beating the Yankees and having hopefully the Red Sox lose than at this moment.’’

While the only question for the Rangers over the last few days was whether they’d hold off Detroit for the AL’s second-best mark, Tampa Bay clinched its playoff spot in a wild and exhilarating end to the regular season.

Evan Longoria homered leading off the 12th inning only minutes after the Red Sox had given up two ninth-inning runs in a loss at Baltimore.

“We’ve just got to ride this high that we’re on,’’ Longoria said. “I don’t think there’s any better push or kind of momentum that you can have than what we’re coming off of.

“We’ve been written off plenty of times. That’s what makes us dangerous, the fact that we believe in ourselves no matter what’s said on the outside.’’

Johnny Damon, one of the many different faces for these Rays after they purged their highest-priced players last winter, was also part of the 2004 Red Sox team that overcame a 3-0 deficit to the Yankees in the AL championship series and then won the World Series in a sweep.

“I actually feel like this was a better comeback,’’ Damon said.

The most significant change for the Rangers since a year ago is not having Cliff Lee, who left in free agency to return to Philadelphia after helping Texas get to its first World Series. The ace lefthander won the opener and clinching games of the ALDS at Tampa against James Shields.

But Texas bulked up its offense with the additions of All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre and catcher-first baseman Mike Napoli, who is coming off consecutive two-homer games. Beltre, Napoli, and Ian Kinsler give the Rangers three 30-homer players for the first time since 1999.

Wilson has taken over as the Rangers’ ace and is one of three lefty starters in the four-man postseason rotation. He won both of his starts against the Rays this season, including a five-hitter for his first career shutout Sept. 6. He threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings in Game 2 last October.

“There is exciting baseball ahead. We more or less played the same type of game. We are very aggressive. We pitch, we do whatever the game asks us to do,’’ Rangers manager Ron Washington said.

Longoria, who also had a three-run homer in the comeback Wednesday, said he had to take a few minutes during the postgame celebration to take in what was happening.

“I had to sit down by myself and at least try to soak some of it in, realize what had just happened,’’ he said. “But it’s a weird feeling being back here, being back in Texas and having another chance at it, what we failed at last year.’’

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