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Inside the Game previews Rays-Rangers Division Series

ARLINGTON -- The Rays will enter an American League Division Series matchup against the Rangers still riding the wave of their late-season heroics that resulted in an improbable berth into the postseason.

Evan Longoria punched his team's ticket into October baseball in the most dramatic fashion possible by hitting a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 12th inning on Wednesday night against New York.

That historic shot combined with a collapse by the Red Sox allowed Tampa Bay to become the first team in Major League history to rally from nine games back in September to claim a spot in the playoffs.

"It's really a surreal feeling," said Longoria, who club was trailing, 7-0, in the eighth inning against the Yankees on the final day of the season. "It was such a long day and a long game and everything happened in a matter of seconds. It was a really crazy feeling."

Now the attention shifts to Game 1 on Friday afternoon. It's a rematch of the 2010 ALDS, which Texas won in five games. The Rangers also won the 2011 regular-season series, 5-4.

Left-hander C.J. Wilson gets the call for Texas after a banner season in which he went 16-7 and posted a 2.94 ERA in a career-high 223 1/3 innings.

Wilson tossed 6 1/3 shutout frames against Tampa Bay during Game 2 of last year's ALDS at Tropicana Field and feels like this time around he will be even more prepared because he knows what to expect.

"I got a lot of advice last year from people that have been there and I hadn't been there," Wilson said. "Now that I have been there, I know what to expect.

"They are going to have the same lineups pretty much they had in the regular season against me. So knowing that, I feel like -- even though we found out [our opponent] at the last minute -- I have all my notes and the video and that stuff to go through and I feel prepared."

Tampa Bay will counter with rookie sensation Matt Moore, who has a total of 9 1/3 innings in the Major Leagues under his belt. The eighth-round selection of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft joined the Rays in September and allowed just three earned runs in three appearances down the stretch.

Moore will be making just his second Major League start -- no pitcher before has started a postseason game with one or fewer previous Major League starts. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Moore -- at 22 years, 104 days old -- will be the youngest AL pitcher to start his team's first game of the postseason since Vida Blue (22 years, 67 days) for the A's in 1971 and the youngest in the Majors since Rick Ankiel (21 years, 76 days) for the Cardinals in 2000.

The Rays come into the series having won five consecutive games and owning a 32-17 record since Aug. 8 to make the postseason. Texas has been equally hot, winning its final six games to claim home-field advantage.

The Rangers also possess the AL's best record in the second half and should prove to be the more rested club, which could help combat Tampa Bay's momentum.

"They have a clubhouse full of guys that are excited and on a roll right now," Rangers outfielder David Murphy said. "A month ago I don't know if they even expected to get into the postseason and now they're here. We can't take them lightly by any means.

"But we've definitely been playing well. Hopefully we can carry that into the postseason. It would be nice if things were clicking on all cylinders, C.J. comes out and throws the way he knows how to, and our offense clicks the way it has been."

The Rangers' lineup is stacked with the likes of Josh Hamilton (.298 batting average, 25 home runs and 94 RBIs in 2011), Michael Young (.338), Mike Napoli (.320, 30 homers), Nelson Cruz (29 homers, 87 RBIs), Ian Kinsler (32 homers) and Adrian Beltre (.296, 32 homers, 105 RBIs).

But the series likely will come down to pitching. Texas ranked third in the American League in starters' ERA with strong seasons by Wilson, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, and Alexi Ogando, who will be used out of the bullpen.

The Rays ranked first with David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis. Now Moore will be added to the mix of what already was one of baseball's deepest rotations.

That type of potential is what Johnny Damon thinks will help stop his club from running out of gas following their late-season push.

"We better have a lot left in our tanks or we'll be going home soon," Damon said. "I know this past month has been grueling, but we got to the playoffs, and with our pitching staff anything can happen."

Less than 24 hours after that memorable season finale, Longoria's shot to left field was already being compared to the biggest home runs in the history of the game.

Tampa Bay's third baseman didn't want to comment on where his moment ranks among the likes of Kirk Gibson, Bobby Thomson, Bucky Dent and Joe Carter but admitted it was a thrill just to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the all-time greats.

"It's an honor to be included with names like that," Longoria said. "I've said it all along -- you don't think about things happening like they happened last night. With [Boston's] rain delay and our extra innings, everything that happened last night, it seemed like everything just fell into place. The stars aligned."

While the Rays were putting the finishing touches on the Yankees -- and the Red Sox were coming unglued in Baltimore -- the Rangers spent their night celebrating a victory over the Angels and waiting to see who their opponent on Friday would be.

Like many people around the world, they kept a close eye on their television sets to see how everything played out.

"That was probably the most dramatic day in the history of the game," Texas' Michael Young said. "It really was. No one knew who they were playing, only a couple of teams knew where they would be playing, then you have those two games with dramatic endings. Just a crazy day in the game of baseball, fans definitely got they money worth."

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