SEATTLE -- With two outs in the bottom of the ninth at T-Mobile Park, José Leclerc let loose a changeup to Mariners utility man Josh Rojas, in a 2-2 count. As it dipped below the zone, seemingly for ball three, Rojas swung instead. Strike three. Rangers win, earning a trip to the postseason for the first time since 2016.
And Leclerc, possibly the least likely option just months ago, recorded four outs to seal the deal.
“It means a lot,” Leclerc said. “I was prepared for it, I tried my best. I was asking for that. To get us to the playoffs, it means a lot.”
But it was only right that Leclerc, the longest tenured Ranger, was able to close it out.
Leclerc is the only remaining member of the 2016 Rangers team that last made the postseason, though he didn’t make an appearance on the mound that October.
He’s the only member of this team that has seen the organization both at its best -- he was signed as an international free agent in December 2010, an offseason squished between two AL pennants -- and its worst over the last few years.
“From 2016, there’s been a lot of ups and downs,” Leclerc said. “And 2019 was bad too. To get back to the postseason, it’s unbelievable. I'm so proud of the team that we’ve got here because I know we can do more now. We just keep going.”
The fact that Leclerc has worked his way back to this position seemed impossible just two months ago. The right-hander opened the season as the team’s closer before struggling to a 6.75 ERA in May. Even when he posted a 1.04 ERA in April and a 3.68 ERA in June, he struggled with his command more than ever.
He only recently returned to high leverage situations within the last six weeks, culminating in his four outs on Saturday.
“It was special for José,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “To go out there and finish, we couldn't have had a more right guy on the mound.”
Something clicked for Leclerc in the second half of the season. Maybe he got fully healthy. Bochy admitted that a neck injury that prevented him from playing for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic likely hindered him more than anybody realized.
Maybe his surgically repaired elbow just finally returned to form after Tommy John in Spring Training of 2021.
Whatever it was, Leclerc finished the month of September with a 1.98 ERA across 13 2/3 innings. He walked seven but struck out 19 as he’s worked his way back to being the Rangers’ top option in high leverage situations.
The Rangers will need this version of Leclerc in the postseason.
Leclerc wants to see this version of himself too.
“It’s important [for me to pitch like this] because we want to be champions,” Leclerc said. “I know we have a lot of good guys here that can be champions. And for me it’s really important because I’ve been with the Texas Rangers since 2010. There’s been a lot that happened. It’s going to be the best moment for me if we can win [a World Series].”