Speedy Rays ready for powerful Sox

Speedy Rays ready for powerful Sox

ST. PETERSBURG -- When the Rays take the field on Thursday for the franchise's first playoff game, history will be the furthest thing from their minds.

"You know what, the past couple days I really haven't been thinking about too much," starter James Shields said.

And for a young and relatively inexperienced team like Tampa Bay, that could be a very good thing.

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"We feel prepared, that's really all that matters," Carlos Pena said. "We try not to look too far outside ourselves or this clubhouse. We try to remain within, and know that if we take care of our business, we give ourselves a pretty good chance to winning."

Joe Maddon has preached the same level of consistent effort all season long and the skipper kept the same mantra on the eve of the first venture into the postseason for the Rays, who boast speed more than power and who won the season series with the White Sox, 6-4.

"I don't want anybody to be more cautious -- that's the last thing I want," Maddon said on Wednesday. "I want us to play our game like we've been doing all year, taking the same kind of risks and providing the same kind of pressure for the other team, period. Nothing new."

Thursday's matchup will be one of speed vs. power. The Rays lack a .300 hitter or a 40-home run bat -- although power-hitting Carlos Pena has been swinging a hot bat -- and most of their offense relies on manufacturing runs. Conversely, the White Sox have a veteran-laden lineup full of deep threats, including Jim Thome, A.J. Pierzynski and Ken Griffey Jr.

"Yeah we are, [a contrast]," Maddon said. "Although we score a lot of runs by the home run, too. They pretty much rely on that. We have more the speedy game."

And the return of Carl Crawford will only enhance the Rays' running game. The speedy outfielder -- who underwent finger surgery on Aug. 14 -- was activated prior to Friday's game in Detroit and the Rays announced Tuesday that Crawford will start in left field for Thursday's opener.

"Perfect timing, if he's at full health and ready to go," Evan Longoria said. "He's such a big boost to our lineup, he's an impact player."

Crawford is arguably the top left fielder in the American League, and his 25 steals make him a pesky runner for opponents. Maddon announced Wednesday that he will bat Crawford fifth -- although prior to the injury he was in the No. 2 hole -- to help ease him back into the lineup.

Regardless of where Crawford bats, the two-time AL All Star's presence is a big one for the Rays. He was hitting .273 with eight home runs, 10 triples and 57 RBIs at the time of his injury.

"[When] you send a lineup card over to the other side and it has his name on it, there's a lot more angst created as [opposed] to when it's not," Maddon said. "From our perspective, there's a big [level of] confidence."

Tampa Bay's other main advantage will be a freshly stocked bullpen, as the Rays haven't played in a game since Sunday, and rested key arms like J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler following their division clinch Saturday morning.

Even without veteran closer Troy Percival -- who is likely to be left off the Rays postseason roster -- Maddon appeared confident in his options in the later innings.

"I think the bullpen we've put together, I'm good with all of them in any situation," he said.

Pitching matchup
TB: RHP James Shields (14-8, 3.56 ERA)
Shields pitched one inning Sunday against the Tigers in a final tune-up before the playoffs, and retired the side in order. The 26-year-old right-hander's best pitch has always been his changeup, but he also has a plus fastball and curve and he's added a cutter that has helped him throw inside to left-handers. Shields enters the playoffs after pitching 215 innings for the second successive season, which is a testament to his style of pitching and his competitiveness. Unless something goes drastically wrong, Shields can be counted upon to give the team seven or more innings. Shields is 9-2 with a 2.59 ERA in 17 starts at Tropicana Field this season.

CWS: RHP Javier Vazquez (12-16, 4.67 ERA)
Manager Ozzie Guillen announced that Vazquez will make the Game 1 start for the White Sox, pitching on four days' rest after pitching Saturday on short rest. Vazquez has a 1-2 record and 3.54 ERA against the Rays this season, along with a 5-9 record and 5.10 ERA on the road.

On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• TBS

On radio
• WHNZ 1250, ESPN Radio

Up next
• Friday: Rays (Scott Kazmir, 0-0, -.--) vs. White Sox (TBD), 6:00 p.m. ET
• Saturday: Off-day
• Sunday: Rays (Matt Garza, 0-0, -.--) at White Sox (TBD), TBD ET

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.