Longoria’s 2 homers lead Rays over White Sox 6-4
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. ” Evan Longoria and the Tampa Bay Rays looked perfectly at home in the playoffs.
The rookie homered in his first two at-bats and the surprising AL East champions were a big hit in their postseason debut, beating the Chicago White Sox 6-4 Thursday in their AL playoff opener.
After 10 seasons as baseball’s doormat, Tampa Bay took the division with the best home record in the majors. And there were no October jitters as the young Rays kept winning at Tropicana Field behind James Shields’ effective start and Grant Balfour’s testy, bases-loaded escape.
Tampa Bay ranked near the bottom of the attendance charts this year, yet was cheered on by a sellout crowd of 35,041. Rays season-ticket holder Dick Vitale waved a “We Love Longoria” placard from his first-row seat next to the visitor’s dugout.
Game 2 is Friday, when Tampa Bay’s Scott Kazmir (12-8) faces Mark Buehrle (15-12).
“We want to win both of them now. We have such an advantage at home,” Longoria said.
Chicago beat Minnesota in the AL Central tiebreaker Tuesday, and took a 3-1 lead on Dewayne Wise’s three-run homer in the third inning. But Javier Vazquez, who has a history of flopping in big games, could not hold it.
Longoria became the second player to homer in his first two postseason at-bats, joining Gary Gaetti from 1987.
Longoria started the year in the minors and became an All-Star third baseman in the majors. He hit 27 homers despite missing 30 games with a broken right wrist.
He homered on his very first postseason pitch, a leadoff drive in the second. He put Tampa Bay ahead 4-3 with another solo shot in the third, a homer off one of the infamous catwalks that support the roof at Tropicana.
“I was just looking for a pitch out over the plate I could hit,” Longoria said.
He also had a RBI single and finished 3-for-3 with three RBIs.
The Rays led 6-3 in the seventh when the game got tense.
Balfour relieved Shields with the bases loaded and one out, and struck out Juan Uribe. Orlando Cabrera was up next, and he kicked dirt toward the mound and appeared to shout something at Balfour. The reliever walked toward the plate before being stopped by umpire Joe West.
Balfour fanned Cabrera to end the threat, pumped his fist and pointed at the White Sox shortstop. The exchange also brought manager Joe Maddon and bench coach Dave Martinez out of the dugout and more words were exchanged between Martinez and the White Sox bench.
It was the same kind of feistiness the Rays displayed in spring training during a dustup with the New York Yankees and a bench-clearing brawl in June on their first visit to Boston to play the Red Sox.
Shields allowed three runs and six hits in 6 1-3 innings. Balfour struck out both batters he faced and J.P. Howell worked a perfect eighth.
Dan Wheeler gave up a solo home run to Paul Konerko in finishing for a save. Wheeler is filling in for closer Troy Percival, who has been slowed by injuries and was left off the playoff roster.
Tampa Bay slugger Carlos Pena left the game after the second inning with slightly blurred vision in his left eye.
The Rays said he accidentally scratched his eye at home on Wednesday night. The injury is not considered serious and he is expected to return to the lineup for Game 2.
Pena, who led the Rays with 31 homers and 102 RBIs this season, struck out in his only plate appearance in the first inning. Willy Aybar entered the game at first base at the beginning of the third, and his sacrifice fly in the bottom half of the inning made it 3-all.
The Rays, who never won more than 70 games in a season before this year, entered their playoff debut on three days’ rest, expecting their youth and speed to be an advantage against the more experienced White Sox, who have struggled on artificial surface this year.
The White Sox, who led the majors in home runs, fizzled after winning three straight elimination games, including a tiebreaker against Minnesota to determine the AL Central title, to reach the postseason for the first time since winning the 2005 World Series.
Longoria’s RBI single in the fifth single made it 5-3 and ended Vazquez’s afternoon.
Carl Crawford, back in the lineup for the first time since injuring his finger on Aug. 9, hit an RBI single off Clayton Richard.
Vazquez allowed six runs and eight hits in 4 1-3 innings ” the fourth consecutive start, all losses, he’s gone less than five innings.
Notes: Richard struck out five consecutive batters after giving up the RBI single to Crawford in the fifth. … Rays senior vice president John Higgins, who joined the team as its first employee in 1995, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
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