Rangers rumble into ALDS on heels of emotional Game 162
The Texas Rangers had once more been pushed to the edge on Saturday. No big deal there. They'd played for weeks with the tension and stress of a season on the brink. What's one more punch to the gut? Maybe it only served to make this improbable division championship even sweeter.
You could see the emotional release in those final moments on Sunday afternoon, as the Rangers finished off a 9-2 victory over the Angels to clinch the American League West.
Twenty-four hours earlier, they'd suffered a devastating defeat in letting a four-run lead slip away in the ninth inning. Suddenly, a lead over the Houston Astros that looked insurmountable was down to one game.
If you doubted that the Rangers would get up, dust themselves off and make a stand of their own, you hadn't been paying attention. This is the team that was eight games under .500 in April. This is the team that was eight games out of first place in August and didn't clear .500 for good until the 115th game of the regular season.
This is a team of toughness and resolve, a team that did itself proud in Game 162. Now, these Rangers are off to play the Toronto Blue Jays in a best-of-five AL Division Series, starting on Thursday on FS1 in the U.S. and on Sportsnet in Canada.
When it ended, third baseman Adrian Beltre was right there in the middle of the diamond, leading his guys as usual, this time with laughter and bear hugs. He'd come up huge, with a home run and three RBIs.
Cole Hamels was in the middle of it, too. He was the guy whom Rangers general manager Jon Daniels went out and got for the stretch run, the guy who told the world that the Rangers were all in for 2015, that they believed.
Hamels did what aces are supposed to do. With an exhausted bullpen, he took the ball and didn't give it back, tossing a 108-pitch complete game. The Rangers have won 10 in a row with him on the mound. Again, this is what an ace does.
These Rangers are tribute to the tremendous work of Daniels, who has established himself as one of the best in the game, having built four postseason clubs in the last six seasons.
He constructed this division champion brick by brick, beginning with the hiring of Jeff Banister as manager last offseason. Banister brought a great touch with players and a relentless attention to detail.
When the Rangers were 8-16 in May, Banister continued to preach the power of positive thinking, urging them to keep going and see how it turned out. Leaders typically reveal more of themselves when things aren't going well, and Banister passed every test with flying colors.
And so did Daniels, who refused to lose faith in his team even when it was hit hard by injuries and started slowly. When almost no one even saw the Rangers as serious contenders at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, Daniels went all in, adding Hamels to the rotation and Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman to the bullpen.
He brought back two popular former Rangers, Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, and both contributed. Derek Holland and Martin Perez returned from the disabled list to stabilize the rotation in July. Rookie Delino DeShields took over in center field and at the top of the lineup.
Shin-Soo Choo got insanely hot in the No. 2 spot, and the big boys in the middle of the order -- Beltre, Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland -- cleaned up.
And it all clicked. The Rangers went 26-14 in a six-week stretch to take first place away from the Astros. And they went 45-25 since July 21, scoring runs in bunches, holding leads, getting just enough starting pitching to get by.
Production came from everywhere. Choo compiled a .500 on-base percentage since Sept. 1. Beltre drove in 53 runs in his last 48 games. Until the final few days, the bullpen was performing as well as any in the game.
This might not have been the ending a lot of people expected when No. 1 starter Yu Darvish was lost for the season during Spring Training, and Holland, the No. 2 guy, went on the DL after one start. The Rangers pieced together a rotation, using a dozen different starters, ranging from 36-year-old Wandy Rodriguez for 15 starts to 23-year-old Chi Chi Gonzalez for 10.
When they celebrated on Saturday, Fielder was in the middle of it, too. Around this time last year, he had no idea if he would ever play another baseball game, much less have a moment like this one.
DeShields surely had some doubts, too, after hitting .236 at Double-A last season and being left unprotected by the Astros. Daniels took a chance on him, and the Rangers went 66-44 with him in the starting lineup.
His story is no more improbable than that of 21-year-old second baseman Rougned Odor. He was hitting .144 on May 8 when the Rangers sent him back to the Minors. He returned to the lineup on June 15 and has fueled the Rangers with his energy and his .861 OPS.
In the end, it all worked. Banister's players give him credit for guiding the Rangers through the bad times. Banister says the Rangers' clubhouse leadership -- Beltre, Fielder, others -- is the best he has ever seen.
They celebrated all of that and more on Sunday. There may be more for them to accomplish. Regardless, they've already had a remarkable run.