Rays lean on stars as they advance to the postseason

Welcome to the postseason, Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays clinched a playoff berth for the fourth time in six years in a workmanlike 5-2 victory over the host Texas Rangers on Monday night in the American League wild-card tiebreaker. Left-hander David Price was the day’s star, but Evan Longoria proved big as well as an offensive threat in Tampa Bay’s top win of the season so far.

Next: The Cleveland Indians in the AL wild-card game Wednesday at Progressive Field. Here are some thoughts from a night when the Rays guaranteed that their season will extend into October.

1. Price was everything the Rays needed him to be. He entered with a sketchy track record against Texas — he owned a 1-7 record with a 5.57 ERA in 11 career starts — but he gave Tampa Bay nine big innings, allowing two runs and seven hits while striking out four batters and walking one.

Price has had inconsistent moments this season, particularly before he began his disabled-list stint in May, but he delivered one of his strongest starts of the year at the biggest time. He entered with a 1-2 record and a 3.78 ERA in five September starts, but he left as a main reason why his team lives to play another day.

2. The Rays needed a quick start, and they got it. They jumped to a three-run lead after 2 1/2 innings against left-hander Martin Perez following a Delmon Young sacrifice fly to center and Longoria’s two-run homer to right center.

With emotions clearly high for the win-or-be-done game, the team that raced to the best start would own the emotional edge. The early lead gave Price the cushion he needed to calm any nerves he might have owned entering the night.

From the start, even though the Rays only scored one run in the first inning, it was clear Tampa Bay was confident it could produce against Perez. Turns out, the fast start was the difference.

3. Longoria was hot. Big players come up huge in key games, and Longoria did just that for the Rays on Monday night. He finished 3-for-4 with two RBI and drew a walk, but his biggest contribution was the two-run homer against Perez that gave the Rays a 3-0 lead in the third inning.

Longoria finished a triple short of the cycle, and by far, he was the most productive member of Tampa Bay’s lineup. The performance was Longoria’s fourth multiple-hit game since Sept. 24. Will he stay streaking? The Rays have a good chance to win in Cleveland if so.

4. David DeJesus continues to impress. Seriously, how savvy was his addition late in the season? Appearing as a pinch-hitter, he doubled to right field in the sixth inning off right-hander Alexi Ogando, scoring Longoria, to increase the Rays’ lead to 4-1.

It was somewhat surprising, given DeJesus’ recent contributions, that Sean Rodriguez was slotted in left field to start the night. But DeJesus again showed why he has become a valuable addition to this team since he was acquired in a trade with the Washington Nationals in August.

He entered Monday hitless in his last three games, but he came through again in a high-reward situation.

5. This momentum can carry. The Rays arrived in Texas living a small lull after dropping two of three games in Toronto, the lone victory coming after nearly blowing a seven-run lead Sunday. But Tampa Bay rode outstanding pitching from Price to take away the possibility for late-inning drama before punching a ticket to the postseason.

Of course, Cleveland has enjoyed momentum of its own. The Indians have won 10 consecutive games to reach the AL wild-card game, doing so against patsies such as the Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins.

The matchup Wednesday between these two will be fascinating. Who will ride the higher wave: Cleveland after a late rally to snag the top wild-card spot or Tampa Bay after its impressive display in Texas? Stay tuned.

Next up: RH Alex Cobb (11-3, 2.76 ERA) vs. RH Danny Salazar (2-3, 3.12 ERA), 8:07 p.m. Wednesday

Quick take: Cobb has won three consecutive starts and five of six decisions overall since returning from the disabled list Aug. 15. He’ll lift the Rays to a rematch with the Boston Red Sox.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.