ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Somehow, the Texas Rangers caught a break in the bottom of the first inning Wednesday afternoon.
The bases were loaded with one out when a pitch to Carlos Peña sailed high and inside, either hitting him or hitting his bat. The Tampa Bay Rays argued that it hit the batter, but umpire Tim Welke ruled a foul tip.
“To tell you the truth, I couldn’t tell,” Rangers catcher Bengie Molina said. “I know it hit something.”
The at-bat continued, and Peña struck out three pitches later. The next Tampa Bay batter, Rocco Baldelli, struck out, too, to end the Rays’ bases-loaded threat.
That’s where the game broke toward the Rangers. Getting out of the jam generated momentum, and the Rangers’ offense got going the next inning en route to a 5-1 victory in Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Tropicana Field.
Cliff Lee struck out 10 and allowed one run in seven innings, and Molina drove in two runs as he and Nelson Cruz hit home runs off 19-game winner David Price.
The Rangers earned only their second postseason victory and now have home-field advantage in the best-of-five series against the American League East champion.
It all goes back to Lee’s Houdini act in the first inning.
“To get out of that with zero was huge,” Lee said. “It was a momentum-builder for our team, and our offense responded and put up two runs the next inning and extended the lead the next three innings.”
Jeff Francoeur and Molina drove in runs against Price in the second with a double and a single to give the American League West champs a 2-0 edge, and they scored single runs in each of the next three innings to build a 5-0 lead.
“If Cliff gives up a couple of runs that inning, you never know what happens,” Francoeur said. “You could tell in the dugout. He started smiling, and it was like, ‘Boys, this thing is over.’ ”
Cruz hit a mammoth homer in the third inning, Molina went deep in the fourth and Vladimir Guerrero ripped a double in the fifth that scored Josh Hamilton.
Manager Ron Washington said that it’s no coincidence that players with postseason experience were the ones who lifted the Rangers in their first playoff game since 1999.
“They got us on top early and gave Cliff a chance to relax,” Washington said.
Lee pitched around a leadoff double by Ben Zobrist in the second to start a string of 11 consecutive outs. B.J. Upton reached on an error to start the sixth, but Lee got three quick outs. The Rays’ only run came on a solo homer by Zobrist in the seventh, Lee’s last inning, as he ran his postseason record to 5-0 with a 1.52 ERA in six starts.
“I like competing, period,” he said. “Anytime you get a chance to play in a situation like the postseason, when you’re playing against the best of the best, that’s what it’s all about. That’s what I thrive on, that’s what I enjoy, and I expect to be successful.”