THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Cliff Lee, post-season ace for hire.
Picking up where he left off during a dazzling October run a year ago, Lee shut down the Tampa Bay Rays while outpitching David Price and leading the Texas Rangers to a 5-1 victory in the opening game of the AL playoffs.
Lee matched a post-season best with 10 strikeouts while allowing five hits — one after the second inning. During one dominating stretch, he retired 16 of 17 batters before giving up Ben Zobrist’s homer in the seventh.
Lee improved to 5-0 in six career post-season starts. He went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five starts for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009, including 2-0 with a 2.81 ERA against the New York Yankees in the World Series.
The Rangers ace lost to the Rays three times during the regular season. However, the AL East champions were no match for the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner this time. The Rangers, in the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, stopped a nine-game post-season losing streak that began in 1996.
Nelson Cruz and Bengie Molina homered for the AL West champions. Darren O’Day and Darren Oliver pitched the eighth, and rookie Neftali Feliz worked out of a ninth-inning jam by striking out the final two batters.
Price, a 19-game winner, allowed five runs and nine hits in 6 2-3 innings. He struck out eight and, like Lee, walked none.
Lee began this season with the Seattle Mariners, who dealt him in early July to Texas, which was looking to bolster its rotation with a No. 1 starter capable of leading the Rangers deep into the post-season. Philadelphia acquired him from Cleveland during last year’s run to the World Series, and the left-hander is eligible for free agency after the season.
The Rays beat him twice while he was with the Mariners, and once with the Rangers during Tampa Bay’s three-game sweep of Texas at Tropicana Field in August.
Tampa Bay had opportunities against Lee early, but failed to score after Jason Bartlett, Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria singled to load the bases in the first inning. After giving up a leadoff double to Zobrist in the second, Lee settled to retire 12 batters in a row.
"Just locating pitches, working ahead in the count," Lee said. "When I got out of the first inning, I knew things were going to go well."
For Tampa Bay, it was a continuation of an offensive funk that began two weeks ago. The Rays lost six of 10 games down the stretch — all against last-place teams — before clinching their second division title in three years on the last day of the season.
Texas is in the post-season for first time since 1999 and its nine-game playoff losing streak had matched Minnesota and the Chicago Cubs for the longest active skid in the major leagues. All three of the Rangers’ previous playoff series were against New York, with their only other post-season victory coming against the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1996.
Price played a key role in Tampa Bay’s surprising run to the World Series two years ago, coming out of the bullpen as a rookie with less than a month’s experience in the majors to get the final four outs against Boston in Game 7 of the AL championship series.
He won 19 games this season, had the AL’s third-lowest ERA of 2.73, and became the youngest pitcher to start an all-star game since Dwight Gooden in 1988. He has never beaten the Rangers, going 0-2 with a 7.45 ERA — his highest against an AL opponent — in four regular-season starts.
The Rangers scored on Jeff Francoeur’s RBI double and Molina’s run-scoring single in the second, then went up 3-0 when Cruz hit a 438-foot homer to centre in the third. Molina’s homer made it 4-0, Vladimir Guerrero’s double off the centre-field wall on a 3-0 pitch gave Lee a five-run cushion in the fifth.
Longoria returned to Tampa Bay’s lineup after missing the final 10 games of the regular season with a strained left quadriceps. He singled between shortstop and third base in the first to load the bases against Lee, who escaped the jam by striking out Carlos Pena and Rocco Baldelli.
After Zobrist doubled in the second, Lee fanned two of the next three batters to strand four runners through two innings, with the Rays going 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position.
The Rays didn’t have another baserunner until B.J. Upton hit a grounder to the left of second base that shortstop Elvis Andrus failed to handle cleanly for an error.
NOTES: The capacity crowd was just the sixth this year for the Rays, who ranked 22nd in the majors in attendance with an average of 23,025. … Before Wednesday, Texas 3B Michael Young had appeared in 1,508 career games without playing in the post-season — the second most among active players behind St. Louis’ Randy Winn (1,717).