10/10/10 4:42 PM ET
Rays, Rangers set to battle for trip to ALCS
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
In games of such magnitude, there often seems to be someone unexpected who steps out of the shadows and makes a huge impact, whether it's Bucky Dent going deep, Dave Roberts stealing a base or Sandy Amoros making a game-saving catch.
Who will take it to a new level and make a name for himself? The opportunity is there, the moment waiting to be seized.
"It's all about being ready, being confident in a game like this," said Texas catcher Bengie Molina. "You're doing it for your team. That's the best part."
Jeff Francoeur, brought to Texas from the Mets primarily to face lefties, smiles and admits he wouldn't mind being tapped on the shoulder by an angel.
Francoeur figured prominently in the Rangers' Game 1 victory at Tropicana Field, cracking a second-inning RBI double and scoring on an RBI single by Molina to hand Lee an early lead -- and all the runs he and the bullpen would need in a 5-1 decision. Molina, who homered and singled twice, is another candidate to be touched by baseball's gods.
"I'm ready to go," Francoeur said in anticipation of another crack at Price, the Rays' heat-dispensing ace. "I can't wait. They brought me here to hit lefties, and that's what I aim to do. I'd love to get a shot at CC [Sabathia] and [Andy] Pettitte [of the Yankees]."
That would come in the ALCS, which awaits the survivor.
A man to watch for Tampa Bay is center fielder B.J. Upton. After a dismal start to the series, Upton found his stroke in Texas, lashing line drives. Upton has a history of rising to the challenge. In 16 postseason games in 2008, Upton had seven homers and 16 RBIs. He took apart Boston in the ALCS, producing four homers and 11 RBIs in seven games while batting .321.
"It's another day to keep battling, just go after it," Upton said. "A couple of big hits, timely hits, can make all the difference."
Much like Francoeur, Sean Rodriguez's primary role is to make things happen against lefties -- and he'd love to get another crack at Lee. Although it didn't look good in the boxscore, Rodriguez had two good at-bats against the great lefty, lining out to center in the second inning and lining out to right in the seventh. He struck out in his other at-bat.
"This is a team that plays the game right, all 27 outs -- and more if necessary," Rodriguez said. "We have a lot of guys who can step in and do the job, and Joe [Maddon] knows how to put us in positions to succeed. We all support each other and pull for each other, which makes for good chemistry.
"Going into any game, we like our chances with David Price, just as I'm sure they like their chances with Cliff Lee. That's what makes it such a great matchup. If you're an athlete, you live for games like this."
Tampa Bay's only run against Lee -- its only run in the first two games -- came on a homer by Ben Zobrist. He's one of several Rays who can play virtually all over the field, giving Maddon unmatched flexibility.
The Rangers looked close to unbeatable in the first two games at the Trop, in large part owing to the dominance of Lee and fellow lefty C.J. Wilson. Molina caught Lee and had three hits in Game 1, including a homer. The veteran receiver has a history of producing when it counts most. He was one of the Angels' most reliable clutch hitters when they won the 2002 World Series -- with Maddon serving as manager Mike Scioscia's bench coach.
"People are hungry on this team, that's what I like best," Molina said. "You see it in their faces. They can't wait to get it going. It takes a full team to win a championship, and I think we have a complete team."
The Rangers would love to see their superstar center fielder, Josh Hamilton, break out the way Evan Longoria did with a homer and two doubles for the Rays in Game 4.
Tampa Bay's offense came surging to life in Texas, rallying to claim Game 3 with five runs in the final two innings and then powering a 5-2 decision in Game 4 behind Longoria's eruption. First baseman and clubhouse leader Carlos Pena had two breakout games in Texas and returns home confident -- but not overconfident.
"We're not getting ahead of ourselves," said Pena, who presided over a team meeting before Game 3 that seemed to bond the club in its hour of adversity. "The main thing to understand and keep in mind is that we have great respect for that team we're playing. The Rangers are really good."
Maddon and Ron Washington will have all hands on deck, holding nothing back. If you're not the starting pitcher, you're in the bullpen. This is one of the biggest games their athletes will play in their lives, but it's they'll be reminded of one fundamental truth.
"You've just got to play and have fun," said Rangers reliever Darren Oliver, who threw his first big-league pitch in 1993 when closer Neftali Feliz was 5 years old. "Don't try to treat it any different. If you do, you might make a mistake, and one mistake can cost you. Lay it all on the line.
"They've got the guy they want out there, and we've got our guy out there. I'll take my chances with Cliff Lee every time. I'm sure they feel the same way about David Price. That's the way it should be. The two best, going at it.
"Somebody's going home on Tuesday night, and somebody's going to play the Yankees."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.