Commentary

Strategy tips Gm. 3 scale toward Texas

Managers pull out all stops as Rangers move within a win of closing out Rays in ALDS

Updated: October 4, 2011, 4:17 PM ET
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Texas Rangers bench coach Jackie Moore just had a feeling.

The 72-year-old wily veteran of the coaching staff turned to manager Ron Washington and said he wanted to pitch out with B.J. Upton at first base and a 1-2 count on Evan Longoria with the Rangers clinging to a 4-3 lead in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the American League Division Series.

Reliever Mike Adams had thrown over to first six times during the at-bat, and Moore thought Upton was ready to go.

[+] EnlargeRon Washington
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesRangers manager Ron Washington dug deep into his bullpen to get through Game 3.

"If I was on the other side, I'd be running too," Moore said. "I guessed right. That's a big part of their offense. You never know when, but this time we were right."

Catcher Mike Napoli -- whose bat, glove and arm were all over the outcome of the game -- threw a strike to second base to get Upton. The play stalled the Rays' momentum and was just one in a series of critical decisions that defined the 4-3 victory that moved the Rangers within a win of advancing to their second consecutive American League Championship Series.

"I can tell you, I was a nervous wreck," Rangers CEO and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan said. "That's probably as stressful a game as I've sat through."

Ryan watched from the front row just behind the Rangers' dugout as a classic playoff game unfolded, full of crucial moments and late-game adjustments. The contest took 3 hours and 51 minutes, but you won't hear anyone complaining about that.

"It was a great atmosphere," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "That's the reason why you can't play every game like it's a postseason game right there. You really don't feel anything. You're out there as focused as you possibly can be and ready for everything."

The dugouts had to be ready, too. Close postseason games can come down to strategy. And both managers were forced to make important calls at big moments in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

"It was the three toughest innings that we experienced all year," Washington said.

It started in the top of the seventh, with the Rangers down 1-0. David Price, who got in and out of a few jams, gave up a single to Adrian Beltre and then faced Napoli.

The catcher did what he usually does with two strikes: shortened his swing, fought off pitches and then crushed a pitch he could hit. The ball landed over the left-field wall, and Napoli saluted a small but vocal contingent of Rangers fans seated behind home plate as it chanted his name.

[+] EnlargeRangers
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesIan Kinsler and Craig Gentry celebrate after scoring on Josh Hamilton's single off reliever J.P. Howell in the Rangers' four-run seventh inning.

That was only the start of the chess match between managers. The Rangers got more going with two outs in the inning and Josh Hamilton came up with the bases loaded. Rays manager Joe Maddon went with left-hander J.P. Howell to face the 2010 AL MVP.

"One of the big reasons that J.P. was here was to pitch to that fellow," Maddon said. "He had decent success in the past. All the homework we do, that's our best one-on-one matchup, we think, out of the bullpen based on the kind of stuff J.P. has and what he's done to left-handed hitters this year. He just got a curveball in a bad spot."

And Hamilton hit it to right field to score two important insurance runs.

Maddon said before the game that he didn't want to "get into a bullpen war with the Texas Rangers," but that's where the game was headed.

With the Rangers leading 4-1, Washington made the call to go with Darren Oliver to face a gaggle of left-handed hitters in the seventh. Starter Colby Lewis, who allowed only one hit through six innings, had thrown 93 pitches. But Washington was ready to utilize his bullpen.

Oliver, though, didn't have it. Three singles and two outs later, Oliver was gone in favor of Alexi Ogando. The hard-throwing right-hander got Sean Rodriguez, a right-handed pinch hitter, to ground out to first. That made the score 4-2. Ogando then got pinch hitter Sam Fuld to ground out, mixing a mid- to high-90s fastball with effective off-speed and breaking stuff.

One tight spot averted. But another decision loomed.

"I think you've already made the next decision," Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "It's the decision after that you worry about. If everything pans out, you know what you want to do. If that doesn't pan out, what's the next situation? It keeps your mind going."

Washington and Maddux went with Adams for the eighth. That's been the plan since shortly after Adams arrived from San Diego before the trade deadline. But the setup man said he kept missing to his left, something that normally doesn't happen to him, and he couldn't make an adjustment.

Desmond Jennings led off the eighth with a solo home run, his second of the game, getting the sellout crowd of 32,828 on its feet and yelling. Just like that, it was a one-run game. Adams then walked Upton and ended up walking Evan Longoria and Matt Joyce. But if not for Moore's call and Napoli's execution on the pitchout to erase Upton, the inning would have unfolded very differently.

So with one out and runners at first and second, Washington turned to left-handed specialist Mike Gonzalez. He needed just three pitches to strike out Johnny Damon.

"I wanted Johnny to see something different, especially from the left side," Washington said about bringing in Gonzalez.

The manager quickly hopped back out of the dugout and brought closer Neftali Feliz in for a four-out save opportunity.

Feliz hadn't pitched in the eighth inning of a close game since April 10 in Baltimore. But he struck out Ben Zobrist on a slider. He had thrown the pitch in the dirt earlier in the at-bat to move the runners up to second and third. However, he went back to it and got Zobrist to swing.

Feliz then dealt with some ninth-inning drama, allowing a hit. But a well-turned double play from Beltre to Kinsler to Mitch Moreland ended the game. The Rangers quickly jumped out of the dugout, in a seemingly collective exhale.

"That's why you play in the postseason right there," Michael Young said. "That's fun. We fought hard and saw some great pitching tonight. It was a hard-fought game all the way around."

Maddon, even in a losing effort, was able to appreciate the excitement of the game.

"How about that game, though?" he said, unprompted. "A tremendous game. It was an absolutely wonderful game of baseball. As you are managing the game, you are very entertained by this whole event."

Both clubs will get a quick night of sleep and be back on the field at 1:07 p.m. Central time to do it all over again.

"The series isn't over yet," Kinsler said. "We still have one more to win and they're obviously not going away. They're a resilient team. We need to get some rest and be ready for tomorrow."

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.

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