Texas Rangers catcher Mike Napoli, right, congratulates Nelson Cruz, as Leonys Martin (27) congratulates Josh Hamilton,left, at the end of Game 3 of baseball's American League division series against the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Rangers won 4-3 and now lead the series 2-1.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Once again, the Texas Rangers look perfectly comfortable under the roof at Tropicana Field.
Colby Lewis outpitched All-Star David Price, Mike Napoli hit a go-ahead homer and the defending AL champions survived a shaky effort from the bullpen to hold off the Tampa Bay Rays 4-3 Monday in Game 3 of their best-of-five playoff.
The Rangers' fourth straight division series road win matched the third-longest streak in major league history and gave them a 2-1 lead heading into Game 4. Texas won three ALDS games at Tampa Bay a year ago, when it eliminated the Rays in five games.
The Rangers will send left-hander Matt Harrison to the mound Tuesday against rookie Jeremy Hellickson.
"We don't take these guys lightly because they've got momentum, they've got a lot of heart," Rangers CEO and president Nolan Ryan said. "That concerns you a lot, and so we know we've got our hands full with them."
Playing in front of the first sellout at home since opening day and hoping to recapture the magic of clinching the AL wild card in the regular-season fianle, Tampa Bay got a pair of solo home runs from rookie Desmond Jennings.
The Rays kept it interesting by scoring twice off Rangers relievers before Neftali Feliz got four outs for his second save of the series.
Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre, playing deep and guarding the line to prevent a double in the ninth, started an around-the-horn double play on Kelly Shoppach's grounder to end it.
"It was three of the toughest innings that we experienced all year. ... I am just so happy we were able to get the 27th out," Rangers manager Ron Washington said of the late-game drama.
Lately, opponents have found that difficult to do against Tampa Bay.
"Believe me, this thing is not over," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "You have seen what we have done over the past month."
The Rays made up a nine-game deficit on Boston in the wild-card standings after Sept. 3 and claimed their third postseason berth in four years by overcoming a seven-run deficit to beat the Yankees and edge the Red Sox for the playoff spot on Evan Longoria's dramatic homer last Wednesday in the 12th inning.
And just as Tampa Bay rallied to stay in the game Monday night, Maddon expects his team to bounce back again in Game 4.
"We'll get back out there ... win that game, take it back to Texas," Maddon added. "I talked in the beginning of the season of doing it in another way. We're set up for it."
Price was the losing pitcher in two of Tampa Bay's playoff losses in 2010 and welcomed the opportunity to try to redeem himself against the only AL opponent he's yet to beat in his career.
The left-hander shrugged off a poor outing in his last regular-season start to take a 1-0 lead into the seventh, thanks to Jennings' fourth-inning homer off Lewis.
Beltre singled leading off the seventh against Price and took second a wild pitch. The crowd of 32,828 fell silent when Napoli lifted a 2-2 pitch into the seats in left-center for a 2-1 advantage. Josh Hamilton extended the lead with a two-run single off reliever J.P. Howell.
"Napoli has just been — this is the year of the Napoli, man," Maddon said. "He is just hot. And he got a pitch."
Napoli also had a second-inning single, stole a base and threw out Tampa Bay's B.J. Upton trying to steal second base in the eighth inning.
"I like hitting here. I feel comfortable hitting here," said Napoli, who hit .320 with 30 homers and 75 RBI's in 113 games for the Rangers after being acquired from Toronto in an offseason trade. He was 9 for 20 with three homers and seven RBIs on the road against the Rays.
As good as Price was early, Lewis was better in limiting the Rays to one hit over six innings. Jennings' first homer was the only hit off the right-hander, who had worked 16 consecutive scoreless innings against the Rays up to that point — a stretch that began with a five-inning stint in last year's ALDS. He followed that with an eight-inning performance to beat Price and the Rays on June 1.
But the Rangers bullpen nearly let a three-run lead slip away.
Johnny Damon, Ben Zobrist and Casey Kotchman singled to load the bases against reliever Darren Oliver in the seventh. Damon scored when pinch-hitter Sean Rodriguez grounded out, and the Rangers escaped further damage when the second pitcher of the inning, Alexi Ogando, induced pinch-hitter Sam Fuld to hit a roller to second base.
The Rays weren't finished. Jennings led off eighth with his second homer, trimming Texas' lead to 4-3. Mike Adams walked Upton, who was caught stealing, and then walked Longoria and Matt Joyce to get himself into trouble again.
The Rangers wiggled off the hook when Michael Gonzales struck out Damon and Feliz came on to fan Zobrist with the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position.
The Texas closer got Zobrist on a check-swing on an 82 mph curve, one pitch after the Rays hitter fouled off a 100 mph fastball.
"That was one intense ballgame," Washington said. "And we needed everything that we got from everyone today."
Price lost at home to Cliff Lee and the Rangers twice in last year's ALDS and was coming off a disappointing outing against the Yankees in which he allowed six runs in four innings of a game that the Rays needed to win to ensure they stayed alive for the wild-card berth on the final night.
Although Tampa Bay rallied to grab the playoff spot, it didn't discourage questions about whether the Rays could count on him in a big game.
The 26-year-old lefty was 0-5 with a 5.40 ERA in eight career starts against Texas before Monday, yet insisted he didn't lack confidence to get the job done in Game 3.
The Rangers had chances against him early, stranding runners in scoring position in the first, second and sixth innings. Michael Young lined to first baseman Kotchman, who made a diving catch to end the first. Nelson Cruz and Mitch Moreland grounded out after Napoli singled and stole second base in the second. Price escaped the sixth by retiring Hamilton and Young on groundballs.
With Lewis pitching, Maddon tinkered with the bottom of his batting order, stacking six consecutive left-handers behind righty-hitting Jennings, Upton and Longoria, who went 0 for 3 with three strikeouts against the Rangers starter — once with Upton in scoring position after walking and stealing second in the fourth.
"The playoffs are not supposed to be easy. We'll be ready tomorrow and keep plugging," Damon said. "We're used to having our backs against the wall. We'll definitely be ready."
NOTES: Only two teams have won more than four consecutive LDS road games. The Atlanta Braves won eight straight from 1995-99. The Yankees won five in a row from 2003-05. ... Lewis allowed an AL-leading 38 home runs during the regular season. The Rays have outhomered the Rangers 7-2 in the first three games of the series. ... Hamilton and Young combined to go 0 for 6 against Price and are 5 for 45 against the Rays pitcher in their careers. ... The family of pro football Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon threw out the ceremonial first pitch. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end died on Sept. 4.
VERLANDER, TIGERS DROP SABATHIA, YANKEES IN GAME 3:
DETROIT — CC Sabathia's wild night has the New York Yankees on the brink of elimination.
Sabathia matched his playoff high with six walks and Derek Jeter struck out with two runners on for the final out in the Yankees' 5-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers on Monday night that put New York in a 2-1 hole in the best-of-five AL division series.
"I put us in a bad spot," Sabathia said somberly. "The next time I get the ball, I'll try to go out and try to help us win."
That might not be until next year.
The AL East champions are counting on a shaky A.J. Burnett in Game 4 at Comerica Park on Tuesday night. Burnett, who was 11-11 with a 5.15 ERA in the regular season, was pushed into a postseason start only because Sabathia's outing in Game 1 was suspended because of rain.
"I feel good about what A.J. is going to do for us," manager Joe Girardi said.
Sabathia was given an early 2-0 lead but fell short in the matchup of aces, Part 2.
New York scored two runs in the first against Justin Verlander before the MVP candidate shut out the potent lineup over the next five innings with 100 mph fastballs and knee-buckling breaking pitches.
"Verlander was a handful," Alex Rodriguez said. "He's always a handful."
The Yankees mounted a rally for the second straight game against closer Jose Valverde in the ninth and fell short. On Sunday, Robinson Cano grounded out with runners on first and second to seal the setback.
This time Jeter struck out with two on, and the captain walked away from home plate shaking his head.
"I feel good about Jeter whenever he's up there in those situations because he's been there so many times," Girardi said.
The five-time World Series champion, who became the first Yankees player to reach 3,000 hits in July, has made a career out of coming through in the clutch, but he couldn't deliver in his latest opportunity.
"If I didn't swing at it, it would've been a strike anyway," Jeter said.
A banged-up Rodriguez, meanwhile, and many of his teammates were no match for Verlander during much of the game.
A-Rod had an RBI groundout out to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead in the first, but finished 0 for 2 with two walks and fell to 0 for 10 in the series. The three-time MVP, nagged by knee and thumb injuries, barely hit better than .200 during the final three months of the regular season.
"My confidence is always there," Rodriguez insisted. "I'm ready to go."
Girardi has said he's not looking to change his lineup, so it seems unlikely he would do what his predecessor, Joe Torre, did against Detroit in Game 4 of the 2006 ALDS when Torre dropped the slumping star to eighth in the order.
Rodriguez was given the green light to swing on a 3-0 pitch from Verlander in the eighth and weakly hit a foul into the seats behind him. A-Rod then swung and missed on the next pitch and fouled off a pitch that whizzed by at 101 mph before wisely taking a high-and-inside pitch to draw a walk.
Mark Teixeira also has struggled. He was 0 for 4 on Monday and is 1 for 11 in the series.
Free passes were what doomed Sabathia.
The big lefty didn't take the loss — Rafael Soriano did after giving up a tiebreaking homer to Delmon Young in the seventh — but the $161 million ace struggled to get the ball over the plate.
He lasted just 5 1-3 innings and issued six walks — one intentional — while allowing seven hits and four runs. He had three strikeouts and threw one wild pitch, with many more that were in the dirt or way off target.
"I actually thought he made a lot of good pitches tonight and I thought the zone was a small zone," Girardi said. "No disrespect to anyone, but that's what I thought."
Sabathia, though, refused to make excuses about the way plate umpire Gerry Davis called the game.
"I've never been one to look at who's calling balls and strikes," Sabathia said. "It's up to me to get guys out."
The last time Sabathia, who can opt out of his contract after this season, was that wild in the playoffs was Oct. 4, 2007, when he was pitching for the Cleveland Indians against the Yankees.
Sabathia's control was so out of whack that he even struggled to connect with catcher Russell Martin on one of his intentional-walk tosses.
"I just couldn't make pitches when I needed to," he said.
The Yankees were planning on their ace pitching Game 1 and Game 4, if necessary, but rain suspended his first start after 1½ innings.
Plan B puts Burnett on the mound and no one rooting for New York is excited about that.
Burnett signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract during the Yankees' blockbuster offseason in which they spent $423.5 million two years ago to add him, Sabathia and Teixeira.
The right-hander hasn't lived up to his end of the bargain, but he has a chance to provide an instant dividend if he can help the Yankees avoid getting eliminated in the Motor City.
"I'm not going to go out and try to prove anything," Burnett said. "I'm going to go out and try to win a ballgame."