Admit it, Texas Rangers fans. After your team clinched its second straight American League Championship Series berth, the thought crossed your minds.
Thank you, Cliff Lee, for signing somewhere else.
After Lee chose Philadelphia over Texas and New York last December, the Rangers found themselves with some leftover cash. They used $80 million of it to sign Adrian Beltre to a five-year contract. Their payoff came Tuesday afternoon, in one of the greatest home-run hitting feats in postseason history.
It went something like this.
Swing No. 1: Second inning. A four-seamer from Jeremy Hellickson. Inside corner. Thwack. Home run to left.
Swing No. 2: Fourth inning. Another four-seamer from Hellickson. Outside corner. Wham. Home run to right.
Swing No. 3: Seventh inning. A heater from rookie sensation Matt Moore. Up, over the plate. Boom. Home run to left.
There were no foul balls in between. There were no swings-and-misses. There was, as it turned out, no margin for error, either. The Rangers led Game 4 of the AL Division Series from the second pitch to the last, but the Tampa Bay Rays made a late, frantic comeback — as they are known to do.
As closer Neftali Feliz reached back to throw the final fastball, the Rays had the tying run on base and winning run standing in the batter’s box. But an instant after Ian Kinsler flipped to Elvis Andrus for the last out of a pulsating 4-3 victory, Beltre sprinted across the diamond and embraced first baseman Mitch Moreland behind the mound.
For the Rangers who were part of last year’s World Series team, the experience was blissfully familiar. For Beltre, who authored just the seventh three-homer game in postseason history, it was not.
Over his 14 years as a big leaguer — from the Dodgers, to the Mariners, to the Red Sox, and now the Rangers — this was Beltre’s first postseason series win. In fact, this is just the second playoff appearance of Beltre’s career. The only other occasion came with Los Angeles in 2004, when the Dodgers’ rotation included Odalis Perez, Jeff Weaver, and the late Jose Lima.
“You don’t play to go home,” Beltre said afterward. “You are trying to get to the postseason. Unfortunately for me, it’s been, what, seven years? But I’m here (now), and we want to finish what we start.”
Beltre, 32, is a younger (and better) player than many realize. He was 19 when he debuted with the Dodgers in 1998 and is now the youngest active player who has appeared in at least 1,900 games.
Beltre reached the 2,000-hit benchmark earlier this year and is barely more than 100 behind where Derek Jeter was during the season in which he turned 32. But team success has always eluded him. The Mariners were rarely competitive during his five seasons in Seattle, and injuries decimated the Red Sox roster during his only year in Boston.
But he has found a home in Texas. Even though this is the largest contract of his career, Beltre doesn’t have the same burden he did in Seattle, where the left-field fence was far away and lineup protection negligible. He was just 26 during the first year of his megadeal with the Mariners. Since then, he has broadened his perspective while maintaining his skills.
“I think he felt more pressure when he was with the Mariners,” said Texas catcher Yorvit Torrealba, who played in Seattle during Beltre’s first season there. “He was younger then, and people were complaining about (his power numbers at Safeco Field). He seems more comfortable now. This is like a family, in this clubhouse. He’s got more experience, and you can see that he feels really confident now.”
If anything, competitive environments seem to bring out the best in Beltre. The past two seasons have been his best since 2004, when he carried the Dodgers to the playoffs and positioned himself for a huge payday.
Beltre would be firmly in the AL MVP discussion if he hadn’t missed 37 games in July and August because of a strained left hamstring. Despite his stay on the disabled list, Beltre finished among the league’s top 10 in OPS, home runs, and slugging percentage.
When the Rangers needed a nudge to clinch the division, Beltre batted .374 while drilling 12 homers and driving in 29 runs in 24 September games. And while Lee’s left arm can’t save runs for Texas anymore, Beltre’s Gold Glove defense at third base can.
“If you talk to our training staff, he’s both their favorite and least favorite player,” quipped Rangers general manager Jon Daniels. “Favorite (because) he’s a tremendous person. I joke about ‘least favorite,’ but he’s tough to manage. He doesn’t want to hear he can’t play. He pushed to get back.”
Daniels noted Tuesday that Beltre and fellow winter-acquisition-turned-postseason-hero Mike Napoli share a common attribute: Both have been to the playoffs before, but neither has played in the World Series. It’s the axiom shared by successful hockey teams: Every year, add a veteran or two who has yet to raise the Cup.
“They’ve both had a taste, but they haven’t really won,” Daniels said. “We felt like they were hungry and would add an element to the team. … We’ve got a hungry group. They don’t need to be pushed. But it always helps, when you’ve got a guy that’s driven.”
This is where a Red Sox fan — and there are a few of you left, I’m sure — wonders if Boston’s dreadful collapse would not have occurred if the hyper-competitive Beltre and Victor Martinez were still around. Beltre said Tuesday that, yes, he talked with the Red Sox after last season, but those discussions never advanced very far.
That’s because Boston general manager Theo Epstein knew he wanted to trade for Adrian Gonzalez and move Kevin Youkilis back to third base. And he did. But then Gonzalez’s team choked away a division lead for the second straight season, while Beltre is still playing.
Beltre said the Red Sox had a good clubhouse last year, filled with good teammates who played hard. But he added: “It’s something about this team that’s a little different. Every guy here pulls for each other. We have fun. But we know what to do to play the game. Everybody’s prepared to win. Besides the players, the coaches are on you, but they’re loose.”
Not to be overlooked: The arrivals of Beltre and Napoli shifted the role of perennial All-Star and captain Michael Young, who went from third baseman to a hybrid DH/utility role. The change could have torpedoed the team’s chemistry. It didn’t. Mutual respect and professionalism made it work.
And now an entire organization can sip champagne and celebrate that Adrian Beltre signed a contract where Cliff Lee would not.
“Texas gave me the best chance to put a ring on my finger,” Beltre said, “and I am just two steps away from it.”