(Sports Network) – Cliff Lee struck out 10 in seven masterful innings, and Texas got home runs from Nelson Cruz and Bengie Molina on its way to a 5-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of their American League Division Series matchup.
The AL West-champion Rangers are back in the postseason for the first time since 1999 and got just their second playoff win in franchise history.
Texas has lost all three playoff series it has contested, but took a big step toward its first victory thanks to Lee, who gave up just one run on five hits and did not walk a batter.
Lee got support from his offense, which plated five runs (four earned) off Tampa Bay ace David Price. Price gave up nine hits in 6 2/3 innings, though did not walk a batter and struck out eight.
Ben Zobrist’s solo homer in the seventh inning provided the lone run for the Rays, who won the AL East to reach the postseason for the second time in their history.
Game 2 of this best-of-five series is set for Thursday back at Tropicana Field.
Lee began the season with Seattle, which acquired him in the offseason from Philadelphia. However, the Mariners did not begin the season as well as expected and dealt Lee to the Rangers just before the All-Star break.
Suddenly, Lee was back in a pennant race, having helped Philadelphia win the NL East last season. Now he’s back in the postseason, where he excelled in 2009, going 4-0 with a 1.56 earned run average and two complete games in five starts for Philadelphia.
Wednesday he continued that success, though only after escaping some early trouble. In the first inning, the Rays had the bases loaded with one out after three singles.
Lee then ran a pitch up and in to Carlos Pena, but it was ruled a foul tip, and the left-hander went on to get Pena looking at a third strike. Lee followed by fanning Rocco Baldelli on three pitches to end the threat.
Texas, meanwhile, got some of its offense from unlikely sources. Ian Kinsler led off the second inning with a single, then scored when Jeff Francoeur — acquired from the Mets just before the waiver trade deadline on August 31 — doubled off the wall in center.
Two batters later, Molina sliced a ball down the right field line to plate Francoeur for a 2-0 edge.
Cruz gave the Rangers a three-run lead in the next inning, when he homered with two away. Price threw three consecutive balls before putting a fastball down the middle, and Cruz hammered it to center field, where it landed on the roof of the restaurant located there.
Price gave up another homer in the fourth. He tossed a fastball in to Molina, who got around on the pitch and hit it over the left field wall. Molina had hit just five homers in 416 plate appearances during the regular season.
The Rangers completed their scoring in the fifth, which Josh Hamilton opened by reaching on an error by second baseman Sean Rodriguez. Hamilton, who missed most of September with fractured ribs, stole second before crossing the plate on Vladimir Guerrero’s double to the center field wall.
Lee had settled into a groove by that point, with a little help. Tampa Bay hit some pitches hard, but often right at Rangers fielders, and that bit of luck helped Lee retire 12 in a row until B.J. Upton reached on an error to begin the sixth.
But Lee got Carl Crawford to ground into a fielder’s choice before striking out Evan Longoria and Pena.
Lee’s lone run allowed came with one out in the seventh, when Zobrist hit an elevated fastball over the wall in right for an opposite field homer. Lee retired the next two hitters to finish his outing strong.
Darren O’Day and Darren Oliver combined to throw a scoreless eighth before Neftali Feliz took the mound in the ninth.
Feliz walked Pena and pinch-hitter Dan Johnson to start the inning, though retired Zobrist on a lineout to right. Feliz then fanned Reid Brignac and pinch-hitter Matt Joyce to end the game.
Prior to this season, Texas faced the New York Yankees in the ALDS round in 1996, ’98 and ’99. The Rangers lost in four games in 1996 before being swept in the other two matchups. Their victory Wednesday snapped a nine-game playoff losing streak…The Rays last reached the playoffs in 2008, when they made it to the World Series before losing to the Phillies…Tampa Bay was 4-2 vs. Texas during the regular season…Price had allowed only 15 homers in 31 starts this season.