Rays deserved to win, Nelson Cruz did not

It’s silly to think baseball gods actually exist, in that any god would have bigger matters to oversee than nine innings in Arlington, Texas. But when a flabby-looking Nelson Cruz swung and bounced a grounder to shortstop for the game’s final out, consider it karma of some sort.

As one of the Biogenesis Bums who served 50-game suspensions for their roles in Major League Baseball’s latest performance-enhancing-drugs scandal, Cruz shouldn’t have been allowed to participate in the American League wild-card tiebreaker game. Commissioner Bud Selig, whose departure from office cannot come soon enough, timed the suspensions so that Cruz, Detroit’s Jhonny Peralta and other punished juicers could return for the postseason if their teams qualified, which absurdly minimizes the impact of their original penalties. I don’t care what the Players Association says. This was an instance where Selig’s sweeping powers should have prevailed, simply because you don’t want a summer cheater becoming an autumn hero.

But October needn’t worry about Cruz. After receiving a standing ovation from a morally challenged crowd of yahoos — “Cruuuuuzz!!!” they chanted — the Rangers slugger went 0 for 4 and helped his team not a bit in a 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, who again advanced to the playoffs as one of the sport’s shining examples of high-efficiency, low-cost fun and success.

The concern was that Cruz would return and immediately light up Rays ace David Price, who entered with horrendous career numbers — 1-7 and 6.62 ERA — against the Rangers. Cruz had been part of that 11-game barrage, batting 9-for-21 with three home runs against Price. “It was a no-brainer,” gushed Rangers manager Ron Washington, who inserted him in the sixth hole as the designated hitter. “It’s the threat. It’s the presence. It’s what he does for everybody else just being in that lineup. It’s awesome.”

Actually, it was nauseating. But what always has been impressive about the Rays, as they prosper in the relative obscurity of a tin-can-looking dome in St. Petersburg, is how they don’t care about much of anything but focusing professionally on a ballgame and then partying in the clubhouse afterward like loons. Here in Game No. 163, for the right to play Wednesday night in Cleveland for the right to play the Boston Red Sox in an AL divisional series, they shrugged off the possibility that a scandalized PED villain could beat them.

“He’s served his suspension,” Evan Longoria said. “It is what it is. Justice has been served.”

“My job is to get my players ready. He’s served his punishment, and he’s eligible to play,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I can’t worry about that. I spend most of my energy on things like the bullpen.”

It’s this very philosophy of chill — along with Maddon’s quirky fixation with gnomes, American Legion Post banners and live animals in the clubhouse — that allows the Rays to relax and achieve an equilibrium in win-or-die moments. Rather than wilt amid the national recitation of his painful statistics, Price pitched like the Cy Young Award winner and not a Sigh Young loser. He didn’t have his best stuff. But he did have his pickoff move — twice nailing Texas baserunners, once with the help of first baseman’s James Loney’s strategic shoe block — and he did have the athleticism to make a terrific scoop-and-throw in the same motion for a critical late out. Maddon rode his ace to the very end, refusing to risk the circus act that is Fernando Rodney in the ninth inning.

And Price prevailed with a complete-game victory, complimented by a two-run homer by Longoria, who has an incredible knack of ripping long balls in the final games of regular seasons (.579, seven homers, 10 RBIs). How fitting that the two stars carried the Rays past a bigger-money team that has been on a steady nose-dive since coming within one pitch of a World Series title two years ago. How appropriate, too, that Price and Longoria immediately locked eyes and hugged after Cruz and the Rangers were purged from the proceedings.

“He just told me that he had a dream about it,” Longoria told the media. “It was awesome to feel that emotion from him. That’s what an ace does, a leader of a staff does. It was awesome to watch.”

Indeed, Price had visualized finishing out a complete game and celebrating with Longoria. “You’re probably supposed to go to your catcher first, but for what he’s done for us and what he’s done for me personally,” he said. “I think about that type of stuff before I pitch all the time, but for it to happen today. I didn’t want to text him when I thought about it. I didn’t want to jinx it.”

This is what the Rays do. They live their dreams.

This is where the Rays thrive. They scratch and sniff and survive.

This is how the Rays win. They play through b.s. and let nothing bother them, such as the terrible call in the seventh when Delmon Young was ruled out on a ball that the diving center fielder, Leonys Martin, obviously didn’t catch, costing the Rays at least one run. Back in April, remember, they lost in Texas on a brutal third-strike call against Ben Zobrist by plate ump Marty Foster. Thank heavens a more elaborate video replay system starts next season, though it stands to burn a team or two this postseason, as usual.

So, the national darlings who get little love from their home region advance to a wild-card game in Cleveland, poised to ride Alex Cobb past the Indians and continue their crazy road trip to Boston, where Matt Moore and Price would pitch the first two games. They have vanquished their demons in Texas, against the team that eliminated them from the playoffs in 2010 and 2011. And they have done America a big favor and terminated Nelson Cruz, not that the Rays really cared.