By the ninth inning, the fans were chanting “Tex-as Ran-gers” the way New York Yankees fans chant “De-rek Je-ter.” In case there was any doubt — and there shouldn’t have been after the Rangers’ ridiculous nine-run third inning — the passing of the torch was complete.
It started last season actually, when the Rangers won their first American League title. But then they lost left-hander Cliff Lee to free agency and nearly traded their longest-tenured player, Michael Young. Undaunted, the Rangers finished with the league’s second-best regular-season record, just behind the Yankees.
Still, as one rival GM said Saturday, people don’t seem to talk about them — perhaps because they play in the AL West, not the AL East. Maybe, the GM mused, the lower expectations work to the Rangers’ benefit. No longer: The Rangers, the first back-to-back AL champions since the 2000-01 Yankees, will not be overlooked again.
Game 6 of the American League Championship Series was a 15-5 bludgeoning of the Tigers, an almost predictable eruption by the Rangers after a series of tight games. The Rangers were better offensively, defensively and on the bases. Their rotation had a 6.59 ERA in the series, averaging fewer than five innings per start. Not to worry; the relievers accounted for nearly as many innings as the starters and produced a 1.32 ERA.
“I honesty feel like they’re a team that, once one thing starts going in their direction, they absolutely snowball,” Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge said. “Just look what they did to us. Fifteen runs. Nine in one inning. I was like, ‘Good God.’ ”
And to think, this might be only the beginning.
The Rangers are adept at identifying and developing young talent. Their general manager, Jon Daniels, has hit on one move after another since the Mark Teixeira trade in 2007, outmaneuvering his peers even when the Rangers were in bankruptcy before getting sold in Aug. 2010.
Club president Nolan Ryan made his own impact, mandating that starting pitchers go deeper in games, instructing groundskeeper Dennis Klein to grown the infield grass higher for the pitchers’ benefit. When Klein asked Ryan how to reply if the team’s hitting coach complained, Ryan said, “Tell ‘em to hit line drives.”
Now, on top of the talent shift and culture shift, a financial shift looms for a franchise that began the season with a $92.3 million payroll, 13th highest in the majors.
The Rangers’ reported 20-year, $1.6 billion deal with FOX Sports Southwest begins in 2015. That’s an extra $80 million a year, and the Rangers, knowing the money is coming, can bid on any free agent they’d like, from left-hander CC Sabathia to first baseman Prince Fielder.
Losing out on Lee, though, reinforced to the Rangers that no one player can define them. Daniels went to Plan B after Lee went to the Philadelphia Phillies, signing free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre and trading for catcher Mike Napoli. True, the moves helped create the rift with Young. But the Rangers ended up keeping him, and Young went on to produce one of his best seasons at age 34.
Young made a point during the on-field celebration of calling the Rangers, “a bunch of mentally tough, blue-collar players.” Beltre certainly fits that description, as does Napoli, whom manager Ron Washington affectionately calls, “a dirtbag.” Second baseman Ian Kinsler is another talented grinder. Shortstop Elvis Andrus plays with an infectious joy. Right fielder Nelson Cruz, who hit six homers batting seventh and was named ALCS MVP . . . as Inge said, good God.
Washington said that the Rangers, after getting beat by the Giants in last year’s World Series, made a commitment in November to return to the Series — and win it. Daniels said he noticed the players’ sense of resolve even before that, on the night the Giants completed their five-game Series triumph and celebrated on the Rangers’ home field.
“I remember walking through the clubhouse on my way home,” Daniels said. “Most of the guys had stayed. They were sitting there, kind of digesting it. You got a sense that it was instantaneous, that they had shifted their focus to next year.”
All winning teams talk of such an intangible edge, but the Rangers, as Young acknowledged, feature “a ton of talent” too. Consider the bullpen, bolstered by Daniels’ in-season additions of Mike Adams, Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez, the postseason addition of Alexi Ogando and the enduring 100-mph heat of closer Neftali Feliz. When was the last time we saw a group this deep and gifted?
The rotation looks like the Rangers’ weakness heading into the Series, but Ryan noted that it was, “a big strength” during the regular season, ranking third in the AL in ERA. This, after Daniels not only struck out on Lee, but also on trades for right-handers Zack Greinke and Matt Garza last offseason. The Rangers trusted their young starters, and for the most part were rewarded.
Nothing is guaranteed in baseball; perhaps the Rangers, for whatever reason, will go backwards next season. Standing on the field, watching the celebration, lefty reliever Darren Oliver, 41, said that the moment is precious. Oliver, appearing in his sixth straight postseason, spoke with a detached perspective, the perspective of experience.
“They’ve done a good job,” Oliver said, choosing “they” instead of “we” to describe his team. “They’ve got to enjoy it, roll with it. It’s not always like that. You’ve got to take ‘em when you get ‘em.”
The Rangers plan to do just that. Young, cradling the AL championship trophy, said he looked forward to holding another trophy, “the one with all the flags on it.” That would be the World Series trophy, and the Rangers intend to secure it for the first time in their 51-year history (they previously were the Washington Senators).
It would be foolish to bet against them.
The Angels couldn’t keep up with the Rangers in the AL West. The Yankees and Red Sox spent more and achieved less. The Rays and Tigers went a combined 3-7 against the Rangers in the Division Series and ALCS.
At this point, it’s stating the obvious: The Rangers are the new standard-bearers of the AL. For now, and the foreseeable future.