ARLINGTON, Texas — Rangers Ballpark was buzzing in anticipation of a long-awaited celebration, and the Tampa Bay Rays had been dreadful at the plate.
Five outs from elimination, the Rays changed everything — and get to play another day.
"The fight showed up again, and that's a good sign," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said.
John Jaso lined a tiebreaking RBI single in the eighth inning after Carlos Pena had already delivered a rare clutch playoff hit for the Rays, who avoided elimination in the AL division series with a 6-3 victory Saturday over the Texas Rangers.
"I was so nervous, hoping we didn't get swept," said Carl Crawford, who homered for the Rays. "I feel so much better. It feels like we're winning the series right now."
Limited to a total of one run and eight hits while losing the first two games at home, Tampa Bay broke loose in the late innings.
The Rays, the AL's best team in the regular season, forced Game 4 on Sunday. A win would keep them alive for a deciding game in the best-of-five series Tuesday at Tropicana Field, where Texas had two impressive victories to start the series.
Ian Kinsler's leadoff homer in the seventh that put Texas up and appeared to set the stage for a series-clinching victory 50 seasons in the making. With the record crowd of 51,746 still hyped, Dan Johnson doubled off the wall with one out in the Rays' eighth. Pena followed with an RBI single that made it 2-all.
"The whole attitude in the dugout, the spirit, everything, just came to life," Maddon said. "More like us."
Then, Texas manager Ron Washington made a curious move, bringing in All-Star closer Neftali Feliz in the eighth inning of a tie game. The hard-throwing righty set a major league rookie record with 40 saves in the regular season.
Feliz walked Jason Bartlett, the No. 9 hitter, before Jaso's liner to center gave the Rays their first lead in the series.
"I was going to use him on Jaso anyway," Washington explained, adding that Feliz would have pitched the ninth anyway.
Crawford led off the ninth with a homer to chase Feliz, and Pena added a two-run shot off reliever Dustin Nippert.
While Texas is still the only current major league franchise that has never won a postseason series, the Rays are trying to do what's only been done once before.
Of the 16 teams before this year to lose the first two games of a division series at home, only the 2001 New York Yankees have swept the next three games to advance. They did it against Oakland.
"We didn't want this to be our last game," Crawford said.
The AL West champion Rangers, in their 39th season in Texas after 11 seasons as the Washington Senators, still have never won a home playoff game (0-5). They won at Yankee Stadium in their first-ever playoff game in 1996, then lost three straight games in that series before being swept in 1998 and 1999.
"There's really no reason for us to dissect the end of the game," Rangers third baseman Michael Young said. "They came out and had some good at-bats late."
Right-hander Wade Davis makes his playoff debut for Tampa Bay as the starter Sunday. The Rangers counter Tommy Hunter, who was 13-4 in the regular season, after they decided before the series even began that Cliff Lee wouldn't pitch Game 4 on three days' rest — something the ace left-hander has never done.
Tampa Bay hit only .247 for the season, lowest of any playoff team since the 1972 Oakland A's. But that was stellar compared to the .125 mark for the first two games of the series, when the Rays totaled only eight hits.
Until B.J. Upton's RBI single in the sixth, the Rays hadn't scored in 16 innings and had gone 0 for 14 with runners in scoring position since Evan Longoria's single in the first of the series opener.
The way the Rays had been hitting, it seemed as if the Rangers might have enough when Kinsler pulled a 386-foot shot down the left-field line off Matt Garza.
The crowd was on its feet and waving white rally towels while cheering. In the front row near the Rangers dugout, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan — the team president who this summer added the title part-owner — stood and applauded with a wide smile on his face.
Garza was done after allowing one earned run and five hits, but the 2008 ALCS MVP was bailed out by three relievers and the surprising bats.
Randy Choate got the only batter he faced before Joaquin Benoit worked 12?3 perfect innings for the victory. The only hiccup by the relievers was Rafael Soriano giving up a solo homer to Nelson Cruz in the ninth.
Tampa Bay, which finished with 11 hits, tied the game 1-all in a strange sixth while scoring for the first time since Ben Zobrist's solo homer in the seventh of Game 1. Johnson scored off Upton's single.
Longoria led off the sixth with a walk, the third by Texas starter Colby Lewis in a span of four batters. The right-hander was done with five strikeouts and five walks.
Derek Holland then appeared to induce an double-play grounder from Matt Joyce, but shortstop Elvis Andrus' high relay throw pulled rookie first baseman Mitch Moreland off the base just long enough for Joyce to be ruled safe. Washington came out to argue, though there was no clear replay to counter the call.
Joyce wound up eliminating himself anyway, taking a wide turn around second when Johnson singled through to right and getting thrown out by Cruz's bullet when trying to scamper back. After Pena walked, Upton double for his first series hit.
The Rays had stranded two runners in each of the two innings before that, when Pena hit a deep flyball to right to end the fourth, and Crawford struck out swinging on a high fastball the next inning.
Andrus led off the bottom of the sixth with an infield hit, then got a break when he was called safe on a stolen base.
Shortstop Jason Bartlett applied the tag and still had his glove on Andrus' leg when he came out of his slide and was straddling but not touching the base. Garza ran toward umpire Jeff Kellogg motioning toward the bag, and Maddon came out for a discussion.
But Andrus got stranded there when Bartlett grabbed Cruz's liner for the third out.
Moreland led off the Rangers third with an opposite-field double into the left-field corner and went to third on a passed ball by Jaso. Then Andrus, who had shown bunt the previous two pitches, knocked him home with a groundout that made it 1-0."I don't think we gave them anything. I think the runs they put on the board they earned," Washington said. "The eighth and the ninth, they took it. We'll bounce back (Sunday)."
Notes: Sitting in the owner's box with Chuck Greenberg and Ryan was former President George W. Bush, the team's managing general partner from 1989-94, before he was elected governor of Texas and later the 43rd U.S. president. ... Benoit was with the Rangers' organization from 1996-2009.