Rays’ Evan Longoria runs to first base still holding his bat after hitting a solo home run against the White Sox during the second inning of Game 1 of their American League division series game in St. Petersburg, Fla., Thursday.AP photo
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.
Chicago 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.
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.
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 today for Game 2.
Pena, who led the Rays with 31 homers and 102 RBI 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.