No matter what happens later this month, the transformation of the Texas Rangers is complete.
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After their dominant showing at Tropicana Field — one run allowed in two victories over Tampa Bay — their reputation as an all-hit, no-pitch enterprise is officially obsolete.
Club president Nolan Ryan changed the philosophy.
General manager Jon Daniels changed the roster.
Manager Ron Washington and pitching coach Mike Maddux changed the expectations.
And a cadre of superb pitchers — ace Cliff Lee, closer Neftali Feliz and everyone in between — changed the direction of a franchise that’s suddenly one win from its first postseason series victory.
“It’s been fun to watch,” outfielder David Murphy said. “There were so many high-scoring, four-hour games in my first year-and-a-half here. That’s the type of baseball that everybody knew the Texas Rangers for. A lot of nights, if you were going to win, you had to win a 12-11 game. It’s not like that anymore.”
“Having a horse like (Lee) changes things,” Tampa Bay bench coach Dave Martinez observed. “They had some young guys who stepped up. They changed the whole culture over there.”
The metamorphosis began long before Lee arrived in a trade with the Seattle Mariners on July 9. But without him, the makeover wouldn’t be complete. The Rangers needed an ace. Lee’s their first true No. 1 in years.
Lee’s so good, so certain of himself when the moment is big, that he even has an impact on the games he doesn’t start. Fellow left-hander C.J. Wilson isn’t shy about saying he tries to emulate Lee. After carving up the Rays in Game 2 on Thursday, Wilson described Lee as the “perfect guy” for him to follow.
“When we acquired Cliff Lee in July, we said the osmosis factor was going to be big,” Maddux said Friday. “Guys could see it firsthand — the personification of attacking the zone. That’s kind of what Cliff did. And I don’t think it only spread to one guy. I think it spread throughout the staff.”
Yes, even the right-handers.
Maddux pointed out that there are similarities between Lee and Colby Lewis, who starts Game 3 on Saturday. Lee works quickly and efficiently. So does Lewis.
“A rock,” Maddux called the right-hander.
If you don’t know much about Lewis, that’s understandable. The 31-year-old spent the previous two seasons with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of the Japanese Central League. He returned to the U.S. with a better repertoire and promptly led the team in strikeouts. He logged 200 innings, too.
This is his first postseason start, but he doesn’t seem jittery.
“Taking my family to Japan — that’s nervous,” he said.
So, this is what the Rangers’ pitching staff has become. Precise. Experienced. Unflappable.
To put the evolution in perspective, consider a very different encounter between the Rangers and Rays. The date was May 16, 2007, and the setting was nothing like this week’s American League Division Series.
In fact, the game was played at the Disney sports complex outside Orlando, rather than the Trop. The Rays wanted to grow their fan base in Central Florida. An announced 8,839 showed up.
The boxscore was an indictment of the Rangers as an organization. They scored six times against journeyman starter Casey Fossum, added two against the bullpen, but lost to a Tampa Bay team that finished last in the AL with 96 losses.
The final score: 11-8.
The Texas pitchers: Vicente Padilla, A.J. Murray, Scott Feldman, Eric Gagne.
Washington told reporters: “We just couldn’t get it done on the mound.”
He doesn’t use that kind of language anymore.
In this low-scoring postseason, Washington has the AL’s best pitching staff, and we know what that usually means.
Yes, the Rangers — the team that gave us Pete Incaviglia, Ruben Sierra, Dean Palmer, Rusty Greer, Juan Gonzalez, Pudge Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro and Alex Rodriguez — could ride “run prevention” straight to the World Series.
After 39 years in Texas, the Rangers have finally figured it out.
MORE THOUGHTS FROM TEXAS
• Rays rookie Jeremy Hellickson is with the team in Texas and available to pitch in later rounds, but if Tampa Bay’s eliminated this weekend, it’ll be easy for second-guessers to question why Hellickson was left off the ALDS roster.
Hellickson, 23, looked like a good major-league starter in August, when he went 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA in four starts, but he was removed from the rotation once Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann were ready to return from the disabled list.
The move was in keeping with the trust manager Joe Maddon has for his players. By moving Hellickson to the bullpen, the Rays also were able to regiment his workload. (He threw just 114 innings last year, and the team was wary of a dramatic increase.)
But there were two negative consequences of the move: Hellickson never quite adapted to the relief work, and the rotation faded down the stretch. By late September, Hellickson probably wasn’t sufficiently stretched out to start games. So, he was’t a viable candidate for the postseason rotation after the decision was made.
We’ll never know how the Rays’ season might have unfolded if Hellickson had remained in the rotation when he had the hot hand. Would he have been a Game 2 alternative to James Shields?
• Rays star Carl Crawford is a Houston native and remains proud of his home state. A tattoo on his left arm says “NO FEAR CARL,” with an outline of Texas in the background.
• Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler believes fans at Tropicana Field were preoccupied with the umpiring during Games 1 and 2 — thus creating an advantage for Texas.
• It’s tough to be a good crowd when you’re worried about the umpires,” Kinsler said. “We were able to take them out (of the game). They were interested in the umpires, and it worked out well for us.”
• Tampa Bay first baseman Carlos Pena — a former Texas first-round draft pick – answered questions about his upcoming free agency. He said, “My heart is with this ballclub,” but later added, “I don’t hold all the cards.”