October 6, 2011
What to Expect When You're Expecting... Another Trip to the World Series?
Despite spending the offseason waiting at the airport for Cliff Lee’s mystery plane to land, the Texas Rangers entered the 2011 season as favorites in the American League West. The Angels fumbled the snap in the Adrian Beltre sweepstakes, giving Texas a nice consolation price in the free-agent market, and through a series of well-executed trades during the season, the team was able to add several veteran relief arms to strengthen their roster. The 2011 Rangers were every bit as strong as the 2010 Rangers.
Heading into the postseason, Texas had eyes on a larger prize than an ALDS celebration; the bright lights and exquisitely chilled champagne of the biggest stage in the game called team’s name again. After locking up the division crown by seeing Scioscia's Wells and raising him a Napoli, the team read a few Baseball Prospectus articles on Matt Moore, became absolutely enamored with his prospect glory, and promptly took the field to get shut out in Game One. Fort Worth native Kelly Shoppach confused everybody with his #want at the plate, jacking two bombs and plating five runs on his native soil. Advantage Rays.
Rangers land was nauseous from the stomach punch, and the wind at the back of the miracle Rays blew a foul panic across the face of North Texas. Game Two brought about an offensive explosion, calming the nerves of those who assumed Texas would never score a run again. Derek Holland and the mustache he borrowed from a 14-year-old weren’t especially sharp on the hill, but managed to make it through five and kept the damage to a minimum. The bullpen did its job—except for Koji Uehara, who was busy doing the opposite of his job, giving up a walk, a single, and a three-run bomb before taking a shower. But the Rangers’ bats offered up the equalizer, sending the series back to Florida for Game Three, shifting the arms on the narrative ever so slightly.
Quick note: I’m watching game highlights on MLB Network, and it dawned on me that John Kruk is as disturbingly ugly as Mark Mulder is disturbingly handsome. They should properly bookend them on the stage to balance the composition. The juxtaposition is too much to deal with side-by-side.
Game Three was David Price’s game to steal, a game his game was tailored for. The “ace” of the staff (for now) pitched well at times, but Mike Napoli and his beer-can power went deep in the seventh and pushed the Rangers ahead to stay. Last season’s post-season warrior, Colby Lewis, stepped back onto the stage and played all the riffs, handing the ball to his pen after going six, striking out six, and allowing only one hit. Texas’ pen made it interesting; pitching to Desmond Jennings became an increasingly difficult assignment. In Game Three, the young outfielder sent two balls into the seats and flashed an electric quality suggestive of future superstardom. The sellout crowd (that’s right) on hand was treated to a good game, but the Rangers held their ground and the Rays were now facing an elimination game.
Matt Harrison admitted that he read his first book (cover-to-cover) in the offseason, a remarkable admission that no doubt allowed his projections to finally find a twin with his production. The once plate-nibbling, command/control, back-of-the-rotation (at best) arm found his fortitude in Game Four, giving the Rangers five innings at max intensity, striking out nine
The game stayed close until the final pitch offered up by Rangers closer Neftali Feliz, which gave Texas the game and the series. The future of Tampa’s rotation, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore, had combined to go seven innings but decided to pitch to Adrian Beltre, who is now known as the Dominican Reggie Jackson thanks to his three-homer performance. Somebody touch that man on the head.
As the Rangers played in ginger ale before cracking a more combustible beverage, the Rays took their house money and called it a season. Lost in the shuffle of their magic season’s end was their magic season, highlighted more by the Red Sox’ failure than the brilliant success of their own organization. With a dollar-store budget playing in a division alongside teams with platinum cards, the Rays found a way to taste the post-season life, and regardless of the outcome, became a team I enjoyed (quietly) rooting for.
Moving forward, the Rangers have two more celebrations on the agenda: one to commemorate a return, and the other to memorialize a triumph. The teams in their path have yet to come into the light, but the matchups are insignificant in the face of proper execution. As a team, Texas can make a case that their best makes them the best, with all the components necessary for a long playoff run and subsequent champagne celebration. At this very moment, the Rangers are seated in a very comfortable chair, watching other teams scratch their way to the next round as they get to reset and look forward. Perceptions change by the second, but as I type this Texas has to be considered the favorites to emerge in the American League, and despite the terrifying reality presented by the Phillies rotational triplets, one could make a compelling argument that the Rangers are the team to be terrified of this October. Who’s waiting at the airport now? No more shines, Billy.