The simple fact is that things lined up better for the Rays than they did for the Rangers in Monday’s one-game playoff.
With no maneuvering necessary, the Rays had their 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner, David Price, ready to the take the mound. The Rangers, having used Yu Darvish on Sunday, were forced to turn to rookie Martin Perez or go to Matt Garza on three days’ rest. Perez on regular rest was clearly the better of those two options, and he held his own after a rocky start, but it just wasn’t enough in Tampa Bay’s 5-2 victory.
That this wasn’t the Rangers’ year had long seemed obvious. They struck out on their biggest targets last winter, losing Josh Hamilton and failing to bring in any big names to replace him. They eventually settled on Lance Berkman, but his bad knees caught up to him quickly after a fast start and he was a non-factor down the stretch. Starting pitchers Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis ended up missing the entire season with injuries. Nelson Cruz got handed a 50-game steroid suspension. The Rangers brought in Garza and Alex Rios as reinforcements and managed to battle their way into the play-in game by winning their last seven after a big September swoon. But the better team won tonight.
Led by Price, who pitched his fourth complete game of the season, and Evan Longoria, who went 3-for-4 with a two-run homer to right-center that just kept carrying and carrying, the Rays won relatively easily, if not entirely comfortably. And the game was won by the stars; to play what was essentially a postseason game with 40-man rosters is patently ridiculous, but in the end, the Rays used 13 players, the Rangers 15. The only way the game would have gone differently under Aug, 31 rules is that the Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier wouldn’t have come in for defense in the ninth.
The Rangers have another tough winter coming up. Cruz, a free agent, seemed to be welcomed back with open arms by the fanbase in his return Monday, but the front office probably won’t be so generous with its affections. Closer Joe Nathan and catcher A.J. Pierzynski could also exit in free agency. Room must be made in the starting lineup for Jurickson Profar, either by trading or shifting Ian Kinsler. Expect the Rangers to make some sort of splash in free agency, perhaps with Cuban first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu. Alternatively, they could dip back into the well that brought them Darvish and aim for fellow Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka.
The Rays will now go to Cleveland for another elimination game, this one with Alex Cobb on the mound. Again, they’ll face a rookie starter in Danny Salazar who may well battle some nerves. Cobb, meanwhile, is throwing about as well as any pitcher in the postseason. The Red Sox await the winner on Friday, and while they’ll never admit it, it’s a safe bet they’ll be rooting for Cleveland.