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October 17, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

Still the Same: Rangers Return to the Series

by Jason Parks

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I imagine a world where the American League champions entered a provocatively lit clubhouse, filled from ceiling to floor with the sweet sounds of Bob Seger and the aroma of crisply chilled canned beer. As “Still the Same” makes its way through the ears of the victors, a familiar sense of accomplishment travels from man to man, gaining strength until it finally reaches manager Ron Washington, who proceeds to climb atop a chair, ask for a brief respite from the stereo, and sing the remainder of the Seger song a cappella. It’s a glorious scene that brings tears to the eyes of all involved, especially Washington, who delivers the Seger with such passion that his words impregnate the room with the bond of love. Nelson Cruz and Elvis Andrus mime the words as their manager arrives at “Turn the Page,” bringing the celebration to a sharp crescendo when a cappella meets a cappella. He whispers…

Out there in the spotlight 
You're a million miles away 
Every ounce of energy 
You try to give away 
As the sweat pours out your body 
Like the music that you play”

At this moment, Jon Daniels emerges from the shadows for the saxophone solo, wearing a just-off-the-press “Texas Rangers: 2011 American League Champions” commemorative t-shirt like a banner on his chest, with a finely crafted conical brass tube pressed to his lips. His entrance takes an already emotional room to its emotional capacity, as he blows the notes the team is at once triumphant and vulnerable. As the final air is pushed into the outro, Washington steps down from his makeshift stage, Daniels fades back into the shadows of the clubhouse, and the team finds focus in the silence. I assume this is how it all went down.

A few days earlier, on Saturday, October 8, Texas began its ALCS adventure in the same park, hoping to take another step toward their World Series Seger.  Rangers parenthetical ace pitcher, C.J. Wilson, toed the rubber for the defending American League champs, in a matchup against the best pitcher left in the dance, Justin Verlander. Neither pitcher lived up to the hype, as the Rangers got the better of Verlander and the Tigers, winning a bullpen-heavy affair 3-2. From the lonely depths of the seventh spot in the order, Nelson Cruz hit a solo shot in the bottom of the fourth, which ended up casting the deciding vote. Advantage: Rangers

When I was in fifth grade, I attended school with a kid named Sam. I assumed Sam had encountered some educational hurdles so far in his academic career, as he had the street wisdom of a seventh grader and the devious mustache of a sexually experienced 10th grader. Needless to say, Sam was a man among boys, peddling his mature facial hair at every turn. I was in awe. I was years away from teenaged hair growth, so I looked up to Sam like he was a father figure. Looking back on the memories, it occurred to me that Sam and Rangers starter Derek Holland styled their follicle eccentricities the same, both with an air of immaturity and gross indifference to outside opinion. Sam’s other flaws soon overwhelmed the power his ‘stache brought to the fifth-grade scene, and I no longer required his leadership to shape my perceptions of man. The Rangers’ fan base looked to Holland and his adolescent lip to provide leadership in Game Two, and like a fifth grade Sam, Holland’s flaws overwhelmed the aura of superiority that his appearance suggested.

Holland failed to survive three innings of work, putting the Rangers in an early hole, forcing the pen to once again carry the load. His counterpart, Max Scherzer, was effectively average, showing sharp stuff and missing bats, but catching enough of the zone on an offering to Nelson Cruz to give up the game-tying home run in the bottom of the seventh. Once again the Tigers were lulled to complacency by Cruz and his lonely spot in the batting order, failing to learn the lesson provided by the slugger’s jack in Game One. The Rangers’ pen continued to show a strong back when Scott Feldman and his mature, confident beard took over for Derek Holland’s fifth-grade spectacle, giving the Rangers four-plus innings of one-hit ball, using his heavy sinker, cutter, and curve combo to strike out four. Feldman gave way to Ogando, who gave way to Gonzalez, who gave way to Feliz, who gave way to Adams, blanking the potent Tigers attack as the game made its way to extra innings. With the bases loaded in the bottom of the 11th inning, the seventh hitter in the lineup approached the plate, obviously creating no fear in reliever Ryan Perry, who clearly assumed the seventh hitter in the order couldn’t handle a weak offering left over the plate. Cruz parked a grand slam into the seats, jubilantly rounding the bases as the first man to ever hit a walk-off slammy in post-season play. Cruz’s teammates erupted around him as he crossed the plate, knowing that the team was now clearly in the driver’s seat, only two wins away from an impromptu Bob Seger outbreak in the canned beer-scented clubhouse.

Game Three moved to Detroit, and there the Tigers’ bats awoke, besting Colby Lewis and the Rangers in a relatively uninspiring game. I like watching Miguel Cabrera hit a baseball, and he of the late model Frank Thomas body didn’t disappoint, hitting an RBI double in the fifth and a bomb off reliever Koji Uehara in the seventh. Doug Fister was solid, and the Rangers’ bats provided little excitement, managing only two runs and no fireworks from the seventh spot in the lineup. I watched the game in Mexico City, like I had the previous two, but approached the game with the same ennui displayed by the Rangers, going through the motions and waiting for something to inspire me again.

Game Four meandered in a way similar to Game Three (at least initially), with good-but-not-great pitching and only a few pockets of offensive action. Starter Matt Harrison was sharp at times and a little loose at others, as was Tigers starter Rick Porcello, who was able to miss some bats while also finding some barrels. After a game-tying homer in the bottom of the seventh brought some drama, the two teams soon found themselves in familiar waters, locked in an extra-innings affair, heading into the always-stressful 11th. After enigmatic reliever Jose Valverde gave up a leadoff double to Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli found his way to the plate and delivered the go-ahead single to put the Rangers up 4-3. With the game still within the Tigers’ reach, the seventh hitter in the order stepped to the plate with two on and one out and once again put the ball in the outfield seats, effectively pushing the game out of reach and giving the Rangers a commanding 3-1 series lead. At this point in the series, Nelson Cruz could run for the office of Christ and win in a landslide.

Game Five found me on a plane back to the United States, and as a result, I missed every second of the event. I was able to watch some of the Cards/Brewers game while waiting in a long customs line, but that did me no favor for this particular article. The Tigers won 7-5, as parenthetical ace C.J. Wilson gave up six earned runs in six innings of work, including two bombs to Delmon Young. Tigers ace Justin Verlander was solid but not spectacular, proving to be the better of the number-one arms but falling short of domination, allowing eight hits and four earned runs in a little over seven innings of work. The lonely seventh hitter in the Rangers’ order once again provided the heroics, launching another home run in the eighth inning, a two-run jack that trimmed the deficit to a surmountable three runs. Because Cruz is only allowed to hit when it’s his turn in the order, the Rangers failed to overcome the mighty Phil Coke, pecking away with a run in the ninth, but going down 7-5 while Nelson Cruz watched from the on-deck circle. The series headed back to Tejas.

With Mustache Rides back on the hill for Game Six, and struggling to avoid the hitting zone, the Rangers found themselves entering the bottom of the third inning down by two runs, looking to find one more victory to punch their ticket to the World Series. Thanks to a combination of bad pitching, good execution, and questionable focus on the field, Texas erupted for nine runs in the bottom half of the inning, sending fans into a frenzy and themselves back onto baseball’s biggest stage. This game was over. Cruz added another home run from the seventh spot in the order in the seventh inning, but the ALCS MVP trophy was already sent to the engraver after Game Two. The Rangers won Game Six 15-5, and the series four games to two.

 Seger time.   

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  Texas Rangers,  Rangers,  The Who

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