Let's hear it for Plan B. As in Beltre.
Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre(notes), with three home runs in a 4-3 American League Division Series-clinching victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday, nearly punctured a hole not only in the Tropicana Field roof, but also in the idea that Cliff Lee(notes) was necessary to keep up with the eastern powers.
Beltre tied a major league record for homers in a postseason game and was the first ever to belt three in a division series contest. He joins five others who have accomplished the feat in the playoffs, among them Babe Ruth, George Brett and, of course, Reggie Jackson.
Beltre, you'll recall, was the Rangers' second choice last offseason. He was the guy the team could get since it couldn't convince star left-handed starter Lee to stay.
Not many thought Beltre could own a division series game against the Rays the way Lee did last year.
To say Beltre won this game by himself is almost an understatement. Jeremy Hellickson(notes) pitched quite well as the starter for the Rays, and might have won if not for the two fastballs he threw to Beltre. Both were vaporized.
The Rays came back, as they usually do, and rode the momentum of rookie left-hander Matt Moore(notes), who seemed unhittable not only in Game 1 but again Tuesday in relief. He too might have won the game if not for the heater he threw to No. 29.
Beltre hit the first offering from Moore in the seventh inning, a 93-mph fastball, as if it was a batting-practice pitch. That gave the Rangers their fourth run – the deciding run in the deciding game.
Put simply: The series would be going back to Texas if it wasn't for Beltre. He was every bit as dominating in Game 4 this year as Lee was in Game 1 here last year. Every bit. And if you think about how dominating the Rays were in Game 1 of this series and how close the Rangers came to going down 0-2, you have to label Beltre and Mike Napoli(notes) as "stoppers" in the same way great pitchers are.
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Sure, the left-handed starter is always going to be more valuable than the sure-handed, power-hitting third baseman. But this series – with Napoli the lone Ranger hero in Game 3 and Beltre doing his work in Game 4 – illustrated that money well spent doesn't always mean spending the max amount of money.
Jon Daniels, the Rangers' general manager, went into the offseason hoping to improve his pitching. Or at least to maintain the status quo by re-signing Lee. But another priority was to shore up the Rangers' hitting against lefties. He decided to go after both Lee and Beltre. In fact, he reached out to Beltre before Lee signed with Philadelphia.
Daniels and manager Ron Washington met with Beltre in a Las Vegas hotel, and it was "Wash" who took over.
"I got a feeling he bought into Wash, and what he's about," Daniels said Tuesday night, draped in a Champagne-soaked Rangers-blue towel. "I felt pretty good about it. He's a family guy. Intelligent. Driven to win."
For his part, Beltre felt the Rangers gave him the best shot to win a title. And that's saying something, considering he played in Boston last year. Asked to compare the two clubhouses, his answer Tuesday was telling.
"It is something about this team that's a little different," he said, after praising the Red Sox clubhouse. "Every guy here pulls for each other. We have fun, but at the same time we know what to do to play the game. And everybody is prepared to win. … This is like a family here, and it makes everybody really comfortable."
So with Beltre and Napoli, the Rangers got two big bats with a strong clubhouse presence. One of the friends Beltre made was Michael Young(notes), who forfeited his job at third but became the DH after efforts to trade him failed. The only bat Texas lost was that of Vladimir Guerrero(notes). Yes it's hard to top an arm like Lee's, but after watching this series, it's equally hard for Rangers fans to want to trade their two new Benzes for a Lambo. Napoli is hitting his prime and Beltre, clearly, is in his.
After watching Beltre smash the Rays' glass slipper into a million pieces with three swings, the Rangers gathered in the Trop visitors' clubhouse and donned the Champagne goggles for the second straight year. They smiled and laughed and sprayed just a little. But the celebration didn't truly begin until Beltre showed up. His teammates pounced, crowding around him in a huddle and dousing him with the bubbly. It was the perfect one-for-all, all-for-one tribute.
Then Beltre broke out of the mess and did a little home run trot around the room – a fourth for good measure.
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Minutes later, in the interview room, Washington was asked if he thought Beltre would be the star that would vault the team into the ALCS.
"Today it was Beltre," he said. "Another day it's been Michael Young. Another day it's been Napoli. Another day it's been Cruz. Another day it's been Elvis."
He went on and on. Then he said, "I know I didn't answer your question."
But that's the thing: He actually answered it perfectly.
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