ARLINGTON, Texas – The Texas Rangers shut down their ballpark Monday night, and still there is season left for them.
They'd never done that before.
The World Series will go to six games, maybe seven, and include them.
They'd never played that deep into a season.
They hold a lead in the World Series for the first time in franchise history, and can win the thing by taking a Game 6 or a Game 7 on the road against the establishment St. Louis Cardinals, this for a Texas team that hasn't lost consecutive games since August.
Fresh from answering questions about becoming their generation's Buffalo Bills – "Ouch," their pitcher, C.J. Wilson(notes), had responded, hurt – they are just a taut game, or a blowout, or a lucky win, or a fouled phone line, anything, from the first championship in franchise history.
Never before has a Texas Ranger – or a Washington Senator, for that matter – uttered those words this time of year.
[Related: Napoli delivers for Rangers again in Game 5]
In yet another gripping game that darted from delight to agony and back, after a month of games that felt just like it, the Rangers are that close.
They'd ended Game 5 with catcher Mike Napoli(notes) in pursuit of strike three and the 27th out, which had deflected off his left knee and was rolling in the direction of first base. Lance Berkman(notes), who'd swung through a slider, dashed down the line. The crowd pounding in his ears, his own bellow following the epic strike-him (Albert Pujols(notes))-out-throw-him (Allen Craig(notes))-out double play still singeing his lungs, Napoli reached the ball and underhanded the final out to first baseman Mitch Moreland(notes).
[World Series Game 5 slideshow: Napoli once again plays hero]
And the Rangers, 4-2 winners, three-games-to-two-leaders, stood a win away. From half-a-century away, from the perspective of that, maybe it still looks like miles. For no one celebrated, I mean, other than the folks who happily clawed and antlered themselves onto Nolan Ryan Expressway, their stadium soon to be dark, their season still shining.
"To close out a World Series, I imagine, is never easy," Kinsler said.
He wouldn't know, of course. Not yet.
But they've played themselves to the brink of a prediction by Ryan himself. He'd called it in six. They'd only hoped.
"We just want to get it done," Kinsler said. "Six, 12, 14, whatever, however many they make us play."
[Y! Sports Shop: Buy Rangers and Cardinals playoffs gear]
A year ago on this very field, the San Francisco Giants had celebrated after five games, leaving the Rangers to smile thinly and claim a hearty, well-intentioned, very, very lovely season. That team, too, had gone where no Rangers team had gone, and yet on the morning of Nov. 2 they were runners-up. They'd left with a nice pennant, lots of cool memories, a promise – well, not a promise exactly – but an objective to return.
They'd let the pennant linger for a few days, along with the ultimately disappointing World Series, before the front office staff reconvened.
"We talked a lot internally," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said over the weekend. "We didn't want to be known as a one-hit wonder. We didn't want to look back 10 years from now and say, 'Nice accomplishment. But we weren't able to build on it.' "
So they started back, an inch at a time. They remade the near-championship season, put themselves back in the place where it went wrong, played their game, lifted themselves with the lessons of experience, waited for the other guy to commit the gaffe, and are now within inches.
"Bottom line," Daniels said, "the players have to get it done on the field. And they have."
Their eyes, almost to a man, nearly glazed at the thought. The concept – one win, one championship – seemed almost too simple to comprehend. They'd made impressive work of "win today," allowing the rest to follow, ignoring yesterday and tomorrow. And now "win today" means "parade tomorrow," and if they'd all plastered their hands to their ears and sung nonsensically they'd have not been more obvious.
"We want to stay in the moment," manager Ron Washington insisted. "We want to play our game. And if it's good enough Wednesday, we'll win. If not, we'll play Thursday."
They shuffled warily to the threshold Monday night.
While the Cardinals were leaving runners scattered across the basepaths, the Rangers went lean. Down 2-0, they got a solo home run from Mitch Moreland, then another from Adrian Beltre(notes), the kind that – when he finishes his swing – he takes a knee, like he's in the front row of the Little League team picture. Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals starter, cursed himself, cursed the world, cursed Napoli, the way he does. Then Napoli, against a rattled Cardinals coaching staff and the men it sent from the bullpen, scalded an eighth-inning slider into right-center field, scored two more, and the Rangers took a lead into the ninth.
Maybe it was a static-y phone line. Maybe the Cardinals panicked. But the wrong guy kept pitching to the wrong guy, and it just kept getting better for the Rangers, and finally the whole thing leaked into the ninth. The Rangers won that, too, when Craig kept breaking from first base on full-count pitches, and Pujols kept fouling them off, and then Pujols missed.
For the first time in the series, yes, Pujols had struck out. So, for the second time in three innings, Craig was thrown out trying to steal, inexcusably with Pujols at the plate.
"You never think strike-him-out, throw-him-out," said Kinsler, who applied the tag. "It's a really difficult play. And Pujols is not going to strike out very often."
Oh, but he did. And some Rangers did indeed dare to see it happen.
"I think we were all thinking about that," said David Murphy(notes), who watched from the bench. "Everybody in the game respects Albert Pujols … but it's the game of baseball, and nobody's perfect in this game."
Funny thing about that. The Rangers are closer than they've ever been. Not to perfection, not even related, but to something they've never been.
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