ARLINGTON, Texas - Matt Moore went to the mound as the ultimate wild card.
Seven innings later, he walked off as a post-season 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 real playoffs with a 9-0 victory over the defending AL 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 AL'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 AL 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 ever started a post-season 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 post-season 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 favourite 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 Saturday night. 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, just kind of one of those things I didn't want to be out of it before I was in it," Moore said. "I tried to be as normal, as normal and as calm as possible. And it was just a matter of getting comfortable, and there on it was throwing strikes."
Having the youngster on the mound led to another important decision for Maddon, who opted to go with the light-hitting Shoppach behind the plate.
The catcher from nearby Fort Worth homered twice off Rangers ace left-hander C.J. Wilson and matched a Rays post-season record with five RBIs.
Texas and Tampa Bay have picked up where they left off last post-season, when the visiting team won every game in their five-game series. That's the only time that has ever happened in the majors.
The Rangers won that series, helped by Cliff Lee, and then went on to beat the Yankees in the AL championship before losing to San Francisco in five games in the World Series. Texas is only 3-9 in post-season games at Rangers Ballpark, where they had never won a playoff game until last year.
After Wilson hit Ben Zobrist with a pitch in the second, Damon followed with a two-run homer to right that put the Rays ahead to stay. What looked like a high popup by Damon just kept carrying and hit the front-row rail just beyond the eight-foot wall.
"Johnny hitting that home run early kind of gave us all a chance to just breathe," Shoppach said.
Shoppach, a .176 hitter in the regular season, followed with a single and later scored on a hit by Matt Joyce for a 3-0 lead. An inning later, Shoppach hit a 410-foot homer to straightaway centre.
More than enough for Moore.
"Once he got the lead, the kid took it to the finish line. He is special. You have to give him credit for that," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "Early on in the first couple of innings he was just establishing his fastball. Then when he got around the third or fourth inning, he started mixing his breaking ball and his change up. He is a special kid. He really is."
Tampa led 8-0 after Damon reached on a two-out error by third baseman Adrian Beltre in the fifth and Shoppach followed with a 415-foot homer to left.
Damon drove in another run with an infield single in the ninth.
Except for Josh Hamilton's two hits, the Rangers — who hit .283 to lead the majors for the second consecutive season — never solved Moore. They got only one runner to third against him.
"I don't know that he's old enough to even understand how well these guys hit at this park," Shoppach sad.
"We talked about it in our meetings that he's a little erratic. But he didn't seem that way today," Hamilton said. "That might've caused us to not be as aggressive as we normally are at the plate. ... His fastball was pretty straight. Not much command of his offspeed. It was out of character for us to not jump on the pitches we saw."
After Ian Kinsler drew a two-out walk in the third, Elvis Andrus had an inning-ending lineout to first baseman Casey Kotchman. Hamilton had a leadoff double in the fourth, but was caught too far off the base on Beltre's grounder to shortstop.
Moore's big league debut came on Sept. 14, exactly three years after left-hander David Price made his major debut and helped the Rays get to the World Series.
Wilson, another Rangers lefty, had taken over for Lee as their No. 1 starter this season. And he had never lost to the Rays — until Friday, when he gave up eight runs (six earned) and seven hits over five innings.
His worst outing of the season came at the most inopportune time.
"It was just some bad location," Wilson said. "Today was rare, very rare. If you put today up against the rest of my games this year, it's like a very rare game. ... Today, I had some decent speed on the ball, my cutter was OK, but my location was bad."
On Sept. 6, Wilson threw a five-hitter at Tampa for his first career shutout.
While Wilson had known for more than a week he would be starting the playoff opener, the Rays didn't even know they would be in the playoffs for the third time in four years until Evan Longoria's homer in the 12th inning against the Yankees late, late Wednesday night only minutes after Boston had lost.
The Rays rallied from a seven-run deficit to beat the Yankees in that thriller. The win eliminated Boston — on Friday, the Red Sox said manager Terry Francona would not return next season.
NOTES: Moore, an eighth-round draft pick in 2007, was 12-3 with 210 strikeouts over 155 innings in 27 starts combined at double-A and triple-A before being recalled by Tampa on Sept. 12. He was eligible for the post-season because he was a roster replacement for Alex Cobb, the right-hander who was put on the disabled list Aug. 7 because of season-ending surgery on his rib cage. ... Shields (16-12) allowed only one run in 17 innings while winning both of his starts against Texas this season. He lost twice to Texas in last year's playoffs. ... Holland (16-5) is 10-1 his last 15 starts. ... Texas was shut out in a post-season game for the seventh time, including twice in last year's World Series.