Rays mean business in postseason
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In the first game of the first playoff series in the still nascent history of professional baseball in Tampa Bay, the Rays did what they have done all season long. They got a better-than-good start from "Big Game" James Shields. Their bullpen overpowered. The Rays hit when they had to -- and a little more than that, courtesy of first-year phenom Evan Longoria -- they played flawless defense and, in the end, they won again, too.
And if the spit happens to fly again sometime this postseason, as it did in the middle of Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the White Sox on Thursday, if the curses start getting flung around and the testosterone level begins to arc perilously over the red line again, we now know this: The Rays can play that game, too. And win.
"That's been us all year. Big road trip ... whatever. Big homestand. Fine. Playoffs ...," reliever J.P. Howell said. "Say what you want to say. We're going to get the job done."
The Rays have a winning formula -- 97 wins and the AL East title, if you hadn't realized -- and they used it to knock back the combative White Sox in Game 1 at Tropicana Field, 6-4 (Recap | Box Score). Shields threw 6 1/3 mostly strong innings. Longoria smacked a couple of home runs. The Rays' bullpen was stellar, especially Grant Balfour, the extra-chirpy right-hander from Australia who stood up to the biggest challenge of the afternoon in a fascinating mano-a-mate showdown with Chicago's Orlando Cabrera in the seventh inning.
The bench, as it has all year, chipped in. The crowd at The Trop -- 35,000-plus and, remember, still new to this -- was into it. And now the Rays roll into Game 2 of their first playoff series looking stronger than they have all season long.
The hero of Game 1 was Longoria, who became only the second player in history to launch two home runs in his first two postseason at-bats. (The Twins' Gary Gaetti, now the hitting coach at the Rays' Class AAA affiliate in Durham, N.C., was the other, in 1987.) Longoria, on his way to Rookie of the Year honors, did it on his first two postseason swings, too, with a bat he was using for the first time. "There's three ballmarks on it," said Longoria, who also had a single. "All in the same spot."
Longoria -- whose season started in the minors, moved through his selection to the All-Star Game and was nearly derailed by a wrist injury that cost him a month of his second half -- was undoubtedly the star, but Game 1's defining moment came in the showdown between Balfour and Cabrera. It might well be the defining moment of the series.
With the bases loaded and one out, the Rays holding a 6-3 lead, the famously fiery and sometimes foul-mouthed Balfour came on to strike out Juan Uribe with a 94 mph fastball. That brought up Cabrera, who took the first pitch from Balfour -- 96 mph and outside by a yard -- and immediately kicked the dirt in front of the plate toward the pitcher, objecting to all the grunting and cursing.
Balfour, who insists his antics aren't directed at his opponents, yelled back at Cabrera, stormed around the mound a little ... and then let loose the real fury.
"He just kind of kicked dirt at me and said, 'Throw it over the plate,'" Balfour calmly recounted later. "So, the next three pitches, I threw it over the plate."
Actually, it took four more to strike out Cabrera, but the job was done when Cabrera swung at a 96 mph heater on the outside edge of the plate. Balfour lurched off the mound, this time yelling straight at the batter, with his teammates -- including the ice-cool Longoria -- intervening to make sure nothing further happened.
What'd he say then? "I told him to go sit down," Balfour said. "I think I might have mixed one or two words in with it."
Balfour is, arguably, the best reliever in a very good pen, and manager Joe Maddon knows it, which is why he smartly used him at that point of the seventh inning. Maddon, a man all for freedom of expression, has let Balfour do his thing all season long. And he wasn't about to muzzle him Thursday.
Afterward, Maddon even compared Balfour to Al "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky, the former Cardinals' reliever who stormed around the mound in the 1970s. "I don't know what happened when [Balfour] was growing up as a kid in Australia," Maddon said, "but there was some kind of influence that's created [these] Hrabosky kind of tendencies."
Whatever is stirring around in Balfour's past and in his mind, it worked for the Rays on Thursday. After he shut up Cabrera, Howell put down the White Sox in order in the eighth and Dan Wheeler worked through the ninth, giving up a solo homer to Paul Konerko, to seal it. In all, it was a convincing win for anyone out there who remains unconvinced about the Rays.
"That was incredible, man. That was intense," Howell said after the game.
And the Rays are just getting started.