ARLINGTON, Texas – Matt Moore went to the mound as the ultimate wild card.
Seven innings later, he walked off as a postseason ace.
Making only his second major league start, the 22-year-old rookie pitched two-hit ball and left with a huge lead Friday as the improbable Tampa Bay Rays opened the playoffs with a 9-0 victory over the defending A.L. champion Texas Rangers.
“You can’t be more impressed,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “What he did tonight was spectacular.”
A minor leaguer until mid-September, Moore dazzled with his pitching and poise. He took a deep breath before his first delivery, then was in total control for a team that already had played a month’s worth of tense games.
“I may have looked a little more calm than I was, especially early. The first inning, I had a little bit of nerves and adrenaline going,” Moore said.
“But these guys made it really easy for me, putting up those numbers. Looking up there after the fourth, I think it was 8-0, it was just a matter of throwing strikes and getting out of the innings as fast as possible,” he said.
Kelly Shoppach homered twice and drove in five runs, Johnny Damon also homered and Tampa Bay dominated the whole way behind Moore.
Moore began this best-of-five matchup by striking out six and walking two against the A.L.’s top-hitting team.
The Rays played for the first time since their dramatic rally Wednesday night on the final day of the regular season. Since Tampa Bay needed every out simply to overcome Boston’s nine-game lead in the last 3 1/2 weeks to win the wild card, Maddon had to focus on getting this far over trying to set up his pitching rotation.
When Maddon had to pick a rested starter for Game 1 of the A.L. division series rematch, he had no qualms of going with the lefty who made his first start last week at Yankee Stadium and struck out 11 in five scoreless innings.
No pitcher had started a postseason opener with only one previous career start until the seemingly unfazed Moore took the mound at Rangers Ballpark less than 22 hours after being told he was pitching in the playoffs less than three months after pitching in the Futures game during the All-Star break.
Rookie Brandon Gomes and Wade Davis both pitched a hitless inning in relief to complete the first shutout in Rays postseason history.
It was a day of memorable pitching in Texas, where 6-year-old Cooper Stone tossed a ceremonial first pitch to Josh Hamilton and then shared two hugs with his favorite player.
This was Cooper’s first game at Rangers Ballpark since July 7, when his firefighter father fell to his death trying to catch a ball thrown to him by Hamilton. Cooper went to the mound Friday with his widowed mother, Jenny, and Rangers president Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher.
Game 2 is today. James Shields will start for the Rays against Derek Holland.
Moore, who had thrown only 9 1/3 innings in the majors before this start, was smiling by the late innings. He was greeted by hugs and high-fives in the Rays dugout after he had thrown his last pitch – he threw 98 in all, 62 for strikes.
“I know everybody’s name in that lineup. I never faced them before,” he said.