ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Rays are impressed with, though not intimidated by Cliff Lee's glittering postseason resume.
The AL East champions beat the Texas Rangers ace three times during the regular season and will send 19-game winner David Price to the mound against him Wednesday in the opener of the AL playoffs.
"Cliff Lee's one of the top five pitchers in all of baseball. He's done it at this time of the year as well as anybody possibly could," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, alluding to the left-hander's October run with Philadelphia in 2009.
Acquired from Cleveland at the trade deadline, Lee went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five postseason starts for the Phillies. He was 2-0 with a 2.81 ERA in two starts against the New York Yankees in last year's World Series.
The 32-year-old began this season with the Seattle Mariners, who dealt him in early July to Texas, which was looking to bolster its rotation with a No. 1 starter capable of leading the Rangers deep into the postseason.
"He's their anchor. ... They've got that rolling, but I like our first game guy a lot, too," Maddon said. "He may not have as much experience as Cliff has had at this point, but I think he's right there with him in regards to his stuff and pitch ability right now. Cliff Lee's had that experience, but we've got kind of a special guy, too."
Price is making his first postseason start two years after playing in a key role in Tampa Bay's improbable run to the World Series. Less than a month after being promoted from the minor leagues, the young left-hander came out of the bullpen to get the final four outs against Boston in Game 7 of the AL championship series.
In this, Price's first full season in the majors, the 25-year-old has set club records for wins and ERA (2.73) and became the first Tampa Bay pitcher to start an All-Star game.
"He's had a great season," said the Rangers' Michael Young, who is making his first playoff appearance after playing 1,508 regular-season games. St. Louis outfielder Randy Winn (1,717 games) is the only active player to appear in more games without reaching the postseason.
"A good pitcher, obviously," Young added. "I think since we know everyone we're facing is going to be good, we just have to look at ourselves."
Price went head-to-head in a highly anticipated matchup at Tropicana Field on Aug. 16, allowing two runs and five hits in six-plus innings of a game the Rays eventually won 6-4. The Rays rallied in the eighth to beat Lee, who struck out 10 but also yielded six runs and nine hits in 7 2-3 innings.
Tampa Bay also defeated Lee twice when he was with the Mariners. The Rangers ace is 0-3 with a 4.56 ERA in 23 2-3 innings against the Rays, but said Tuesday that that mean absolutely nothing going into this series.
Lee also said he's not feeling in extra pressure because Texas acquired with this moment in mind.
"I expect as much out of myself as anyone expects out of me. You can call it pressure, call it what you want. But I'm not nervous or worried or any of those kind of words that woudl go along with pressure," Lee said.
"I'm more confident and excited and anxious," he added. "So, I'm looking forward to it, and it's going to be a challenge and a lot of fun."
Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford said the key to beating Lee has been the Rays pitching well and playing solid defense, too.
"It's just one of those things where we've had some good luck against him," Crawford said. "You watch those games, he's pitched really well against us. Some kind of way we found a way to get a hit to win."
Price understands the importance of setting the tone for the rest of the rotation by holding his own against Lee.
"It doesn't change your approach at all, but you do know coming into that game that you've got to keep those runs for that opposing team to a minimum," Price said. "Pitchers like him, more often than not, their going to bring their 'A' game, especially in a spot like" Wednesday.
Texas is in the playoffs for the first time since 1999 has lost nine consecutive postseason games, tied with the Minnesota Twins and Chicago Cubs for the longest active skid in the major leagues. All three of the Rangers' playoff series losses have come against New York, with their lone postseason victory coming against the Yankees in the Rangers' first-ever playoff game in 1996.
"We know the past history, never winning in the playoffs, so we want to change that," Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton said. "It's the first step, obviously, get to the playoffs. That's a big step for us as an organization. We feel like we're moving in the right direction."
Texas has lost 10 of its past 12 games at Tropicana Field, including all three this year. The Rangers were concerned enough about how they've played in the domed stadium that the team flew to Florida on Monday to work out while the Rays took the day off.
At 39-42, Texas is the only AL playoff club with a losing road record. But manager Ron Washington insisted he's not concerned.
"I don't think you care where you are once you get to the playoffs," Washington said. "We feel if we play our type of baseball, it doesn't matter whether you are at home or on the road. I'll take our best game on Wednesday and I don't think the road will matter."
The manager also downplayed the Rangers' lack of postseason experience. Texas only has five players who've been in the playoffs before — Lee, Jeff Francoeur, Vladimir Guerrero, Bengie Molina and Darren Oliver.
"Once we get out on the field, the first pitch is made, it's just baseball," Washington said. "It's the message I'm sending. There will some anxious energy. It won't be because we're afraid. At this point, it's who plays the best that day."