A 99-win season for Tampa Bay that began with one of the greatest starts ever ended on the wrong side of history Wednesday at Tropicana Field.
The Rays came an inning away from the longest postseason scoreless drought in major-league history, but they couldn’t avoid their seventh consecutive postseason defeat — the longest active streak in the majors — as they were swept by the Rangers.
For the second straight year, the Rays dropped both games of the wild-card series while scoring a total of just one run between the two games. This time, it was at the hands of a Texas team that mitigated its bullpen disadvantage by putting both games away early, outscoring Tampa Bay by four runs in Game 1 and six runs in Game 2.
Tampa Bay didn’t record its first run of the series until the seventh inning of Game 2, at which point the Rangers had already built a seven-run advantage behind another starting pitching gem and an offensive barrage in an eventual 7-1 win that moved them forward to the American League Division Series.
What we’ll remember
Evan Carter thriving on a national stage: The Rangers rookie was still playing in Double-A as recently as Aug. 27. He turned 21 on Aug. 29, the same day as his Triple-A debut, and was called up to the majors 10 days later. He has not stopped producing since.
After registering a 1.058 OPS in 23 major-league games, the top prospect with a preternatural ability to control the strike zone reached base in each of his first six career playoff plate appearances with a home run, two doubles and three walks against the Rays. His two-run homer Wednesday — which made him the youngest player in franchise history to hit a postseason home run — capped a four-run fourth inning for the Rangers that began with an Adolis García homer and continued with an RBI triple from third baseman Josh Jung.
It’s worth remembering that it was García’s knee injury that opened the door for Carter to make the jump to the majors. García returned looking fresh, while Carter’s arrival added a new dimension to an already powerful Rangers lineup.
Game 2 MVP
Carter and Rangers starter Nathan Eovaldi deserve co-honors.
Following up on starter Jordan Montgomery’s seven scoreless innings in Game 1, Eovaldi kept the quality starts coming by allowing one run in 6.2 innings in Game 2.
Wednesday was the first time Eovaldi had held a team scoreless through three innings since July 18. That start was also against the Rays, and it preceded a month and a half long stint on the injured list with a forearm strain.
The All-Star, whose dominant first half helped carry the Rangers’ rotation for stretches, hadn’t looked the same since — which made Game 2 such an encouraging start for a Texas team that needs another reliable starting pitcher alongside Montgomery in order to make a deep October run.
Wednesday was easily Eovaldi’s best start since his return from the injured list last month. The veteran right-hander said before the game he wanted to be able to mix all his pitches. Consider that goal accomplished: Eovaldi got eight called strikes on his four-seamer, seven whiffs on his splitter and five whiffs on his curveball. His 6.2 innings pitched were his most in a game since July 1. His eight strikeouts were his most in a game since June 15.
Eovaldi’s velocity had already started to tick up again in his last start of the season in Seattle, despite the Mariners tagging him for seven runs in 3.1 innings in that Sept. 30 start, but Wednesday was a colossal step forward against the team that gave him a chance following his second Tommy John surgery in 2017.
Inside the box score
AL batting champ Yandy Díaz finished the series 1-for-8. Neither he nor 2020 ALCS MVP Randy Arozarena scored or knocked in a run. For a shorthanded Rays team, that wasn’t going to get it done.
Meanwhile, the depth of a Rangers offense that scored the most runs in the American League this season was on full display. Every batter in the Texas lineup recorded a hit in Game 2. The Rangers demonstrated their patience against Tyler Glasnow and their power against Zach Eflin. While the Rays try to find the right platoons, the Rangers largely keep things the same. Corey Seager and Jung each doubled against the righty Eflin and lefty reliever Colin Poche.
The Rangers’ rookies were ready for the bright lights. The Rays retired Carter just once in the series (3-for-4, three walks, one hit by pitch), while Jung went 3-for-4 in Game 2 with two doubles and a triple. Carter and Jung combined for three more extra-base hits than the entire Rays team in the series.
What surprised us?
It seemed like the Rays’ postseason offensive ineptitude would finally come to an end. They won 99 games. They had the fourth highest-scoring offense in baseball. They were a playoff team all season and the more experienced group. While they were playing in their fifth consecutive postseason, the Rangers were playing in their first since 2016 and coming off a disappointing finish to the regular season that saw the Astros capture the division.
But Texas shook off the letdown quickly, while Tampa Bay stretched its scoreless postseason drought to 33 consecutive scoreless innings before Curtis Mead’s RBI single against Eovaldi in the seventh inning of Game 2. That was the only run the Rays generated. Which brings us to the next surprise …
The Rangers won the pitching battle.
Montgomery outdueled Glasnow, Eovaldi outlasted Eflin, and a volatile Rangers bullpen threw 4.1 scoreless innings in the series while the Rangers’ bats got to Poche. Of course, it helped that the Texas offense gave the bullpen a comfortable runway.
Eflin hadn’t allowed more than three runs in any of his final seven starts of the season — the longest streak of his career — and entered with a 3.30 ERA in 18 starts this year at Tropicana Field, where the Rays were dominant this season (53-28). And yet, he surrendered five runs (four earned) in Wednesday’s loss.
The Rangers travel to see the Orioles, who are also experiencing their first taste of the postseason since 2016, on Saturday in Baltimore.
Both teams feature a plethora of young talent. While Carter has added a major jolt to the Rangers’ offense, Baltimore boasts the likely AL Rookie of the Year in Gunnar Henderson, one of the best backstops in baseball in 25-year-old Adley Rutschman and a 23-year-old pitcher in Grayson Rodriguez, who looked like a star in the season’s second half.
After upsetting the runners-up in the AL East, can the Rangers do the same to the division-winning, top-seeded, 101-win Orioles? And could they possibly have Max Scherzer back for their next test?
Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and MLB as a whole for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.
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