The wet spot was there by the Rangers clubhouse door Monday, exactly where it always is after games that end in heroics by outfielder Nelson Cruz. That doorway has become a killing field, where good beers too often meet an untimely demise. Dousing Cruz with beer after walk-offs has become a Texas tradition and his "Boomstick" has done a number on that carpet. "Countless beers, countless," Rangers reliever Scott Feldman estimated the carnage.
And so it was again Monday after Cruz hit a walk-off grand slam in the 11th inning of Game 2 of the ALCS to give the Rangers a 7-3 victory against the Tigers and a 2-0 series lead going into Tuesday’s Game 3 at Detroit.
"It’s definitely not a waste. Just because it does not go down the throat, does not make it a waste," Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler argued about the lost beers. "This was an instant classic type of game."
In this amazing postseason of crazy finishes and freakish battles between flyover states and feats of excellence by players often overlooked in an East Coast-driven game, maybe what the Rangers are doing is most amazing of all. Here was a team that little more than a year ago was in bankruptcy court, trying to get a judge to force hands so MLB stopped writing checks and calling shots for them. They were a team who reached a World Series an October ago, only to lose to the Giants, then lose ace pitcher Cliff Lee in the offseason, and then be left for sports dead. St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman was the only one with guts enough to say publicly what a lot of people around baseball were thinking.
"I felt like if they didn’t re-sign Cliff Lee that they were going to be an average team, and I feel like that’s probably what’s going to end up happening," Berkman told reporters back in January after turning down a Rangers offer. "It’s all about your pitching. I feel like last year was one of those special years where you kind of catch lighting in a bottle and they got hot and they had some guys that I felt like were pitching better than their talent level and consequently they had a great year."
One-hit wonder was the takeaway; the verbal gold that followed this Rangers team all season.
Monday was simply a microcosm of this Rangers season; a team defying expectation by the rest of the staff pitching better without Lee than with him. It is not often that a starter cannot even last three innings, like Derek Holland did in Game 2. And yet it works out for the Rangers, as Feldman and Alexi Ogando highlighted a five-man bullpen effort that provided scene control until Cruz was able to do his “Boomstick” routine.
“I was just thinking ‘Alright, if I am going in this early in the game, I’m just going to try to keep it close and give us a chance,’ ” Feldman said of his thoughts when the phone rang. He did those things; an inspired 4-1/3-inning performance from a guy whose name maybe 10 people outside of Texas know.
This Rangers-Tigers game had so many tipping points, so many critical plays, so many “this is the game” declarations that it is difficult to give every big moment its due. In the ninth inning alone, there were at least two.
Detroit had runners the bases loaded with two outs in the top of the inning, when Rangers closer Neftali Feliz induced a drifting fly ball just beyond shortstop. Elvis Andrus faded back with the ball, positioned himself under it and . . . then almost dropped it. The ball actually squirted out only to be corralled by his bare hand before falling.
“I’m sure at some point that will get lost in the shuffle, but that was a tough play. That was a big play,” Rangers DH Michael Young said.
Andrus simply noted he “hates fly balls,” with a smile of course.
The situation Tigers reliever Jose Valverde created in the bottom half was actually a lot worse. Like in Detroit’s half, the bases were loaded. Only there were no outs when he entered. But the very awesomely nicknamed Papa Grande got a short fly to left for the first out and then a 3-2-3 double play to end it.
Hot work from the big man.
“This is what we all live for, this is just fun,” Young said. “Obviously, getting the W, it is easier to talk about how much fun this is. . . . It’s been fun. Basically all of our games have been nail-biter games.”
In so many ways, Monday was also a microcosm of this postseason. It, too, was supposed to be average at best. Dead when Boston failed to qualify, even deader when the Yankees and Phillies were eliminated in the division round. All the major markets were gone, A-Rod, CC and most of the one-namers were gone, and most reasons to watch were gone.
Let’s go there. Those drunk on their football are bound to argue TV ratings, like a preponderance of sports fans have to be watching a sporting event to signify greatness. Lots of people watch “Jersey Shore” and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” — it does not make them great. It makes them popular.
It is possible for baseball to be great and less popular than football on TV; they are not mutually exclusive. What makes this baseball postseason particularly outstanding is even if you do not have a Ranger or Tiger, Brewer or Cardinal, or Benjamin in the race, it is still infinitely watchable. The drama is compelling enough to suck you in, to have you linger around to find out if Papa Grande can get out of the jam or if the Cardinals have another underdog shocker in them.
It is probably better if you do not have a rooting interest. These games have been so tightly contested that the heartbreak is pronounced when it comes.
And so it was when Nelly Cruz stepped into a 1-2 pitch in the 11th, only a couple of innings after being plunked in his wrist and stomach. He stood there for a second, not sure it would stay fair and only moving when it did. He did a little airplane action as he made his way to first and picked up speed until he reached a mosh pit of Rangers at home plate.
“I saw it on TV last year, all of those homers he was hitting last year in the postseason,” Rangers catcher Mike Napoli said. “He’s doing it again this year.”
It was another amazing moment in a postseason loaded with them, and another beer gone to a better place.