Published November 20, 2014
Keeping their foot on the pedal, the Tampa Bay Rays delivered another unlikely twist to a September filled with so many impossible turns.
They did it behind one of the greenest starting pitchers in postseason history.
Rookie left-hander Matt Moore threw seven shutout innings in his second major league start and Kelly Shoppach hit two home runs, leading the Rays to a 9-0 win over the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of their AL division series on Friday.
Moore (1-0) was the first pitcher to start a playoff game with one or fewer previous MLB starts, but the box score betrayed everything about that fact.
The heralded 22-year-old gave up just two hits, two walks and struck out six while becoming the youngest American League pitcher in 40 years to start his team's first game of the postseason.
"You can't be more impressed," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who deflected credit for starting Moore by saying it was a group decision among himself and the scouts. "What he did tonight was spectacular."
Moore was told around 6:30 p.m. on Thursday that he would get the start, giving him little time to be nervous about making history.
"At that point," he said, "it was just a matter of getting to sleep and getting some good rest."
The Rays offense crackled in support.
Johnny Damon's solo homer sparked a three-run rally in the second inning and counted as the winning run, while Shoppach belted a three-run homer in the third and a two-run blast in the fifth to put the game out of reach.
The Rays, of course, rallied from nine games back on September 3 to win the AL wild card from the Boston Red Sox, whose MLB-record collapse had even further consequences when manager Terry Francona lost his job on Friday.
Hours later, Tampa Bay continued to push forward by winning its sixth straight game and earning the first measure of revenge against the Rangers, who beat the Rays 3-2 in last year's ALDS in the first postseason series ever in which the road team won every game.
That streak continued, with Moore outdueling Texas ace C.J. Wilson (0-1) in the second-most anticipated pitching matchup of the day.
Tampa Bay scored its first eight runs off Wilson, the left-hander who went 16-7 for Texas during the regular season but couldn't make it to the sixth inning of this one.
Wilson gave up seven hits and a walk while striking out six. Two of the eight runs scored against him were unearned.
Rangers manager Ron Washington defended his decision to leave Wilson in the game, saying he hoped his ace would find a rhythm and keep the team in the game.
But Washington also realized he was up against a young pitcher who had everything working.
"The kid threw a good game," Washington said about Moore, "and you can't take nothing away from that."
The Rangers, who won six straight games to end the regular season and were 14-2 in their last 16, got only two hits in Game 1. Both came from Josh Hamilton, who singled in the first inning and stroked a leadoff double in the fourth.
Before the game, Hamilton caught the ceremonial first pitch thrown by Cooper Stone, the 6-year-old son of firefighter Shannon Stone, who died July 7 after falling over the railing behind left field while reaching to catch a foul ball thrown by Hamilton at Rangers Ballpark.
Francona and the Red Sox were holding a press conference in Boston at the same time the Rays were closing in on their Game 1 shutout in Arlington, adding another odd chapter to the improbable storyline that tied both teams together down the stretch.
It peaked Wednesday when the Rays rallied from a 7-0 deficit in the eighth inning to beat the Yankees and the Red Sox lost in the ninth inning to Baltimore, vaulting Tampa Bay into the postseason.
The Rays are in the playoffs for the third time in four years, but first time as the AL wild card. They are trying to make it back to the World Series for the second time after losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008.
The Rangers carried the second-lowest playoff winning percentage among MLB's 30 franchise into Friday's game and fell to 9-18 in their history. They were the only team never to win a postseason series before they beat the Rays last year on the way to a World Series loss to the San Francisco Giants.
Moore pitched in three games during the regular season, making his first career start against the Yankees on September 22, when he struck out 11 batters in five innings for his first win.
He threw 62 of his 98 pitches for strikes against the Rangers and never had to work out of trouble. Brandon Gomes struck out two in a perfect eighth inning and Wade Davis threw a 1-2-3 ninth to seal the win.
Damon had two hits and delivered the first blow with his solo homer to right field in the second. But Shoppach, who collected three of Tampa Bay's 11 hits, did much of the damage and also had the responsibility of catching Moore.
"I don't know if Matt will admit it," Shoppach said, "but I know for a fact when you get an early lead it helps. It helps a lot. Especially for a guy on a big stage."
Shoppach singled and scored during the three-run rally in the third, then hammered a first-pitch fastball over the wall in center field for a 6-0 lead in the third inning.
The blast was caught by a Rangers fan, who scrambled onto the grass for the ball and promptly threw it back onto the field.
In the fifth, Damon reached on an error and scored on Shoppach's long two-run shot to left field.
The Rays added a run in the ninth inning on Damon's RBI single, which scored B.J. Upton to make it 9-0.
Right-hander James Shields will start for the Rays in Game 2 on Saturday while left-hander Derek Holland will go for the Rangers...Moore -- at 22 years and 104 days old -- was the youngest AL pitcher to start his team's first game of the postseason since 22-year-old Vida Blue for the Athletics in 1971. He was the youngest to do it in the majors since Rick Ankiel, who was 21 years and 76 days old for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2000. Moore is one of seven rookies on Tampa Bay's postseason roster...The Rangers were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position and stranded five on base...Shannon Stone's widow, Jenny, issued a statement during the game, thanking the Rangers for turning "a difficult return to The Ballpark into an once-in-a-lifetime experience for Cooper. Nothing could be more exciting for a boy than throwing out the first pitch to his favorite player. We are glad and grateful to be here to see the Rangers start their march to the World Series."