Rangers loose going into series finale

Before this American League Division Series turned into baseball’s best new drama, Texas Rangers captain Michael Young offered a description of his team that’s become very relevant, very quickly.

“We’re loose,” Young said Friday afternoon, back when we were plotting out the Rangers-Yankees probables. “This is as good of a team as I’ve ever seen at walking the line between loose and locked in at the same time. Too loose, you’re not going to be good. Too serious, you’re not going to be good. This team does a great job of making sure that we stay right in the middle.”

With a chance to clinch at home, the Rangers lost two maddening games. Now they have a one-game season — on the road, Tuesday night, against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Win and celebrate the franchise’s first postseason series victory. Lose and become just the second Major League Baseball team to lose a best-of-five series after coming home with a 2-0 lead.

The weight of history can buckle knees, and I fully expected to see evidence of that upon entering the Rangers’ clubhouse after their 5-2 loss to the Rays on Sunday afternoon.

Instead, I discovered that Young was right.

When the locker room opened to reporters, Young was reclining at his locker, talking with teammates Jeff Francoeur and Matt Treanor. Someone offered a one-liner. Young laughed.

On the other side of the room, Darren Oliver chucked his gear into a duffel bag. The previous day, the veteran lefty had the ball and a one-run lead with five outs to go, before everything melted away. At 40, this might be his last chance to reach the World Series. His advice to the fans: “Don’t panic.”

A little while later, Chuck Greenberg, the managing partner and CEO, chatted with a few players. Greenberg was wearing blue jeans and a red polo shirt. He didn’t look stressed, either.

If I didn’t know better, I would have thought this was a getaway Thursday in early June.

“We’re not going to sit here and second-guess our effort,” Young said. “We’ll get after it on Tuesday.”

The Rangers don’t appear to be a team in mid-gag. They just need a hero.

Fortunately for them, they have a number of candidates.

MVP candidate Josh Hamilton is due to emerge. He’s had a quiet series, batting just .143 without an RBI or extra-base hit.

Hamilton isn’t driving the ball. He walked twice in Game 4, which is fine, but I wonder if he would have squared up one of those pitches if he was (a) swinging well, or (b) not suffering from broken ribs.

For the record, he said the ribs aren’t an excuse. He simply isn’t seeing fastballs. He acknowledges that he’s pressing, and he’s self-aware enough to know it’s time to adjust.

“Hopefully, I’ll learn,” he said. “You’d figure, after four games, that something would click. You’ve got to take what they give you. I’m swinging at curveballs inside, trying to do too much, instead of taking my walks.”

Meanwhile, Hamilton’s hobbling counterpart was clutch on Sunday for Tampa Bay. Evan Longoria doubled in the fourth inning and limped on his injured left quadriceps to score the Rays’ second run. Then he delivered a crucial two-out, two-run homer in the fifth.

What did Hamilton plan to do while plotting a counterattack? Scrutinize film? Hack away in the cages for a couple hours?

Nope.

“I’m going to go home,” Hamilton said. “I’m going to take my girls fishing this afternoon. We don’t play (Monday). Maybe swing some in the cage, maybe not, have dinner with my wife, show up and get after it the next day.”

Nelson Cruz and Vladimir Guerrero must be heard from, too. They combined to strand nine baserunners over the past two games. Cruz was awful in right field on Sunday as well. A big game from either of them could be enough to earn a date with the Yankees.

And of course, the Rangers have the ultimate difference-maker in ace Cliff Lee.

Sure, if Texas loses, the decision not to start Lee on short rest Sunday will be second-guessed between now and the franchise’s first postseason series victory, whenever that may occur.

One source said the Rangers never seriously considered starting Lee on short rest. He suffered a back injury during the regular season, and the team’s wary of disrupting his rhythm.

In explaining the decision to keep Lee in reserve for Game 5, manager Ron Washington referenced the diminished performance of pitchers on three days rest. He pointed out that Lee’s never done it. He reminded us there’s “only one” CC Sabathia.

And now the Rangers have this much in their favor: Lee will be working on five days rest. He has a 3.30 ERA in such circumstances, compared with 4.20 on normal rest.

He dominated the Rays in Game 1. Why not do it again?

In fact, that seems to be the overriding mood of this team. The Rangers seem more comfortable when perceived as the underdog. They are that again. The Rays called a team meeting on the off day before Game 3. Young sees no value in doing so with his group.

The Rangers aren’t dreading Game 5. They’re embracing it. So, don’t be surprised if this becomes the first MLB postseason series in which the road team wins every game.

“Should be fun,” Young said. “We’re excited.”

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