ST. PETERSBURG -- Now the Rays find themselves with their backs squarely against the wall.
A four-run seventh inning in Game 3 of the American League Division Series led to a 4-3 Rangers win Monday at Tropicana Field, putting the Rays in the precarious position of having no margin for error: one more loss to Texas and they will be eliminated from the postseason.
"We've been underdogs all year," Johnny Damon said. "We're not going to make the playoffs. We're not going to catch Boston. We lost too many pieces. And we, as a team, look at each other and say, 'That's OK, count us as underdogs, but we're not going to buy into it.' Hopefully tomorrow is another great finish for us here and we're planning on going to Texas."
David Price started for the Rays after a lackluster September that saw him go winless in six starts. But the left-hander responded with six scoreless innings and appeared to have everything under control when Adrian Beltre singled to left to start the seventh. Mike Napoli followed with a two-run homer on a 2-2 fastball into the left-field stands to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead.
"David was still doing a nice job of working through the whole event," said manager Joe Maddon, adding that "this is the year of the Napoli, man."
"It is the Bernie Carbo moment," Maddon added latter, alluding to the former Red Sox outfielder who hit a pinch-hit three-run homer during the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, setting the stage for Carlton Fisk's walk-off homer in the 12th. "I am always looking for that for ourselves."
Two outs later, Craig Gentry singled to chase Price. Brandon Gomes entered the game, and Gentry quickly stole second. Ian Kinsler then drew a walk in advance of a double steal. The next hitter, Elvis Andrus, drew a walk to load the bases for Josh Hamilton and prompt another pitching change.
Much-maligned left-hander J.P. Howell entered the game to a chorale of boos before facing the Rangers slugger. After throwing a curveball that Hamilton missed for strike one, Howell threw another curveball and Hamilton singled to right to drive home Gentry and Kinsler for a 4-1 Rangers lead.
"Disgust, a lot of anger inside," said Howell when asked about what was going on inside after the hit. "You have to flush that and roll on, man. That's my job for tomorrow. That's my goal. Swallow this and move on."
Howell, who returned from left-shoulder surgery after missing all of the 2010 season, said the results he's been getting recently have had nothing to do with anything physical.
"It's a matter of executing pitches and getting the job done," Howell said. "That's what I'm not doing. That's what it is right now."
Maddon defended his decision to bring Howell in to face Hamilton, saying "that's one of the big reasons that J.P. was here, to pitch to that fellow."
"He had decent success in the past," Maddon said. "And just everything we do, all the homework we do, that's our best one-on-one matchup, we think, out of the bullpen based on the kind of stuff J.P. has and what he's done to left-handed hitters this year. He just got the curveball in a bad spot. The first pitch, you saw it. The second pitch is in the wrong spot, that's all."
Tampa Bay tried to answer by loading the bases with one out in the bottom of the seventh, but the only run it could mint came when pinch-hitter Sean Rodriguez grounded out to first base against Alexi Ogando.
Desmond Jennings tried to jump-start another rally in the eighth, as he roped a leadoff homer -- his second of the game -- but that was the last time the Rays reached the scoreboard.
"If you ever wanted to see a great baseball game, that was one out there today," Texas manager Ron Washington said. "It was quite intense. Each one of the clubs had opportunities to do some things, and I am just so happy we were able to get the 27th out."
Colby Lewis started for Texas, bringing along an accomplished resume from his performance during the 2010 postseason, when he went 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA. And the 31-year-old right-hander silenced the Rays for three innings, retiring all nine hitters he faced.
Jennings broke Lewis' spell when he jumped an 89-mph fastball, driving the pitch into the left-field stands for a 1-0 lead.
Lewis allowed just one run on one hit while striking out six in six innings to pick up the win.
Meanwhile, Price used his fastball judiciously to put together his longest outing since Sept. 13, when he went 6 2/3 innings against the Orioles. His final line showed three earned runs allowed, which led to him taking the loss; he remains winless in three career postseason starts.
"I felt good, pretty much the entire game," Price said. "That's what it takes, is one pitch in the postseason, and that's pretty much what cost me today. ... Just haven't gotten it done."
Tampa Bay's season will end Tuesday if it doesn't win. If the Rays do manage to get a victory, the series will shift to Texas for a deciding Game 5 on Thursday.
"We got to win tomorrow, we know that," Jennings said. "Just have to come out and do it. We're not down on ourselves. We know we still got a chance."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.