ARLINGTON, Texas – When the Rangers started their final homestand of the season last Monday, there was little hope of them making a playoff push. They had fallen behind the Cleveland Indians and the Tampa Bay Rays in the wildcard race, so most of the talk was about who might be fired after the season.
Even a visit from the woeful Houston Astros didn’t offer any guarantees. The Rangers knew they needed to run the table in seven games against the Astros and Angels to have any shot at sneaking into the postseason. The eternal optimist, Nolan Ryan, described the Rangers’ situation as a “free-fall.”
And that’s why a 6-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels on a drop-dead gorgeous Sunday at the Ballpark was so stunning. The Rangers didn’t clinch a playoff spot, but they did force a wildcard tiebreaker Monday night against the Rays. The winner of Monday’s game at the Ballpark will earn the right to play the Indians on Wednesday in the A.L. wildcard game.
“We showed heart, fight, grit, any other adjective you want to use,” said Rangers manager Ron Washington. “…We found our game.”
There were absolutely no signs the Rangers were poised to end the regular-season with seven consecutive wins. The Rangers had been 0-6-1 in its previous seven series. A split with the Rays had seemed like some sort of a breakthrough. The Rangers still haven’t won a series outside their division since taking two of three games from the Reds in late June. But they had dominated the Astros (17 wins) and Angels (15 wins) throughout the season.
With Yu Darvish on the mound for the Rangers in front of a raucous crowd, it seemed like the Rangers had the advantage Sunday. But with two outs in the first inning, Mike Trout drove a Darvish fastball 421 feet onto Greene’s Hill in center field. Given the fact the Rangers had already lost four of Darvish’s starts by a 1-0 margin, it wasn’t a good sign. Fortunately, the early wakeup call wasn’t necessarily a dealbreaker for Darvish. He retired 13 of the next 14 hitters he faced while showing a lot of emotion on the mound.
Designated hitter A.J. Pierzynski led off the fifth inning with a double to left-center field. Catcher Geovany Soto followed with a walk, but Mitch Moreland struck out. Pierzynski and Soto both advanced a base when pitcher Jason Vargas fired an errant pickoff throw into center field. It was at that moment the Rays-Blue Jays game went final. With a 7-6 win, Tampa Bay clinched at least a spot in the tiebreaker game, which put the Rangers in a win-or-go-home situation.
Only moments later, Craig Gentry shot a two-run single up the middle to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead. The crowd of 40,057 breathed a sigh of relief. It was the first legitimate threat of the day for the Rangers, and they were able to capitalize. Gentry reached base safely in his first three plate appearances Sunday and is 17-for-36 (.472) over his last 10 games. He’s also become automatic on the basepaths, reaching safely on 18 of his last 19 steal attempts.
Washington managed this game like he was in the playoffs. Darvish induced a double play in the sixth inning. But then he gave up a single to Erick Aybar and walked Mike Trout. Pitching around Trout didn’t seem like an awful idea after watching Josh Hamilton’s first two feeble outs of the game. But Washington had seen enough from Darvish even though he’d only thrown 84 pitches. Darvish looked shocked when he saw Washington signal for left-handed reliever Neal Cotts to enter the game.
“I brought in Cotts to make Hamilton as uncomfortable as possible,” Washington said. “It was just the right time. The game could’ve gotten out of hand. I was only concerned about the moment. I felt like Cotts was the guy. I wasn’t worried about having to get 10 outs.”
Hamilton went the opposite way on a high fastball to drive in the tying run, but Cotts struck out second baseman Howie Kendrick to end the inning. Washington wasn’t in the mood to apologize for his decision.
“I respect Hamilton,” he said. “I respect Hamilton a lot…I was afraid of the Hamilton-Darvish [matchup].”
The Rangers responded with a two-out rally in the bottom of the sixth inning. After back-to-back singles from Adrian Beltre and Pierzynski, Soto doubled to right center-field. Beltre came limping home to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
It’s only been seven days since the Rangers’ season was left for dead in Kansas City. Last Sunday, they lost 4-0 on a walk-off grand slam in the 10th inning. The Rangers only managed four runs in that three-game series. But as they have all season, the Astros and Angels offered the Rangers safe harbor. Now, the Rangers have a chance to change the ending of a story so many of us had already written. And it looks like they’ll try to find a spot in the lineup for old friend Nelson Cruz, who caught a flight to Arlington on Saturday night.
Shortstop Elvis Andrus stood at his locker late Sunday afternoon talking about the plan he had for facing Rays ace David Price. But he took a moment to look back at the past week.
“People started talking about what happened last year,” said Andrus. “And it felt like it was happening again. You didn’t want to put extra pressure on yourself, but we didn’t have any choice but to win every game. And we have to keep doing it.”