Rangers do the hustle for first playoff title

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It took 50 springs and 50 summers to get to this Fall. It took the Texas Rangers 7,953 regular-season games and 4,206 regular-season losses to get to this Tuesday night. It took 35,632 runs to lead this cursed franchise to the brink of a postseason series victory.

And it took three of the strangest runs you’ll ever see to get them over the top.

This ill-fated ballclub has traditionally been led by bashers who could never quite get it done – guys like Buddy Bell, Ruben Sierra, Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez(notes). Those were the large names with the large muscles in the state where everything is large. But the results have always been so tiny – negligible, really. All those runs on all those scorching Texas nights brought the Rangers one postseason victory in half-a-century, dating back to when they were the Senators. This team carried a big stick, but spoke softly.

And after all that stomping, the Rangers won a postseason series by sneaking.

The first run of this 5-1 Game 5 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field was the most devastating. Elvis Andrus(notes) singled to lead off the game and stole second. Then he darted around third and to the plate while the Rays took their sweet time making a putout on a simple ground ball. By the time Rays starter David Price(notes) covered first to take the underhand throw from first baseman Carlos Pena, Andrus was flying home. “Elvis was seeing the ball wasn’t hit that hard,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “And [the Rays’] thought process was a little delayed.” 1-0.

The Rays tied it up. But with two out in the fourth, Nelson Cruz(notes) doubled and tried to steal third. Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach(notes) fired the ball into left field and Cruz trotted home. “Nelly, he stole third a few times this year,” Washington said. “Opportunity was there. We took advantage of it.” 2-1.

In the sixth, with one out, Vladimir Guerrero(notes) singled and so did Cruz. Ian Kinsler(notes) bounced one to Pena and the Rays tried to turn two. Price again covered the bag and turned to the umpire when Kinsler was called safe. That was all the lumbering Guerrero needed to hustle home. A baserunner with bad knees had scored from second on a force out. “What else do we have to do but come around the bag and keep running,” Washington said. “If it’s a double play, the inning is over anyway.” 3-1.

The Rangers added two more in the ninth on Kinsler’s third homer of the series and that was it. That’s right: The Rangers – the Kings of Clout – won the biggest game in their forgettable history with three runs that scored on plays where the baseball only left the infield when the opposing catcher chucked it out of there.

“You think of the Texas Rangers and you think of the big inning,” said Michael Young(notes). “But [baserunning] was always a part of our game.”

Of course there was another ingredient in this historic win: Cliff Lee(notes). How to sum him up? Try 120 pitches and 90 strikes. Try 11 strikeouts and zero walks. “That was as outstanding a performance in a pressure situation,” said team president Nolan Ryan, “as I’ve ever seen.”

There’s irony in that, too. Ryan symbolized the old Rangers as much as any of the bashers did. He was the power and the fury. He was known for the no-hitters and the rasslin’ of Robin Ventura. And like the big boppers, he thrilled the hometown crowds but never built the regular season spark into a playoff flame. Ryan threw his first playoff pitch for the Mets at age 22 and his last playoff pitch for the Astros at age 39. He won two postseason games.

Lee has won that many in the last week.

And he’s also done it by being sneaky. He’s the chisel, not the hammer. While Ryan threw bullets, Lee moves the ball around the strike zone so subtly that hitters can’t pick it up. “He doesn’t have a put-away pitch,” said Ryan, his eyes wide as if he still can’t believe it.

Lee did not go ballistic when the Rangers won. As the final fly ball sailed over his head, he pounded his mitt and walked slowly toward catcher Bengie Molina(notes) as if he had just won a spring training game over the Pirates. Why flip out? “I expected to have success,” he said. Even in the post-game celebration, with champagne spraying everywhere, Lee could be found standing quietly by a tub of beer, having a conversation about the game. When asked about all the wretched history that led up to this point, Lee shrugged. “I’m not caught up in that,” he said. “That has nothing to do with this team.”

That’s just it. Gone now are the 50 springs and 50 summers. Gone are the thousands of lost games and the tens of thousands of meaningless runs. The Texas Rangers have finally won a playoff series. They did it in a strange and beautiful way. And now the only relevant number in the organization is eight – the number of wins between the new-age Rangers and a championship.